Small Wars Journal

What it Means to be a Ranger

Sat, 05/22/2021 - 1:01pm


By Keith Nightingale

On May 21, 2021, President Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to Ralph Puckett.  Ranger Puckett, as a Lieutenant, commanded the 8th Army Ranger Company during the initial surge to the Yalu River in 1950. It was just sixty miles south of the Chinese border on a frozen windswept hill that Puckett exemplified how ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

The land was forbidding by itself. Bare frozen dirt and rocks and the occasional shrub marked the tortuous hills and valleys of the region.  The road leading north was barely a trace and was dominated by a sharp rise that if held by either side, would control all progress-a requirement of the 8th Army which was racing to the Yalu.

The land here was very broken and disconnected as if a giant had scattered the terrain in a disconnected puzzle. Hills were important as they controlled the narrow valleys, the only way major units could progress.  Hence, Ranger Puckett and his 50+ men were tasked with taking and holding a piece of ground indicated as Hill 205, its height in meters.

The Korean Ranger companies were hastily created in the summer of 1950 as the US scrambled to develop competent forces to withstand the North Korean onslaught into the South. Puckett, who had tried in vain to fight in WWII, was chosen to command the forming 8th Army Ranger Company as much out of desperation as design.

He knew that Rangers had to be fit and Grunt competent.  Most importantly, they had to have a mental toughness and a will to excel under the most difficult circumstances.  He insured they were through his training regimen and the conditions of combat. The nature of the war did not permit much in the way of training time, instead battle was the test and conditioning.

This was especially true for the Rangers as their demonstrated qualities, comparatively speaking, exceeded that of the other elements.  Hence, they were often asked to do tasks well beyond the Ft Benning formula for units of such size.  Such was the requirement on a very cold November day.

Hill 205 dominated the only road in the area and its control was vital.  By now, the advancing forces were aware of the engagement of the Chinese en masse.  But, they did not know exactly where they were or what they would do.  In a habit for Rangers, Puckett and his men would soon find out.

In this part of the world, the Siberian winds blow strong and hard dropping the temperature to well below zero and insuring the dirt and rocks were frozen in repose.  Digging a foxhole was a Herculean task.  Just managing the cold was equally taxing.

Puckett’s men were loaded on some tanks and driven to their drop off point, a small valley in front of the hill.  The road traced to the north and marked the route Puckett’s men had to take.  Puckett spread out his men and began the advance.

Very quickly, they came under fire from a hidden machine gun.  Unable to identify the location and seeing his men stopped on exposed ground, Puckett arose and ran across the open ground, seeking fire. Still unexposed, the weapon continued to chatter and stop any advance.  Puckett rose and ran a second time and then a third.  Each time he drew fire and on his third rush, the gun was exposed and quickly silenced.

Now advancing up the hill, the Rangers discovered it unoccupied, but with prepared defensive positions.  Clearly, the Chinese would soon attack and wrest the hill.  Puckett distributed his thin force, made them dig deeper and set out the few trip flares they had. Most importantly, he established all around artillery grids and planned to use it as his primary defense.

Now they waited for what they knew was the inevitable counter-attack by massively greater forces. Night quickly descended, a bitterly cold and bone chilling night making both alertness and basic functioning a challenge.  Very quickly, the Chinese rewarded them.

It began with the shrill sounds of a bugle and an answering drum beat.  The Chinese advanced in tight ranks more than five abreast with successive lines to their rear.  Puckett called in his artillery which quickly decimated the attackers forcing a retreat.

The second assault began with a mortar barrage impacting with great precision along the defensive line.  Rangers began to fall. Puckett himself was lightly wounded. Bullets searched the thin line further reducing the position.  Again, artillery saved the position in combination with Ranger small arms. At these distances, accuracy was not an issue.  Most any weapon fired would impact the masses attempting advance.  Fuze VT and Fuze Time shrouded the Rangers in a splintering steel shield.

By 0200, Puckett’s line was considerably reduced in effective strength and all knew that a third attack was building.  Puckett had gone from position to position under heavy fire, redistributing people and ammo and more importantly, keeping up their confidence.  Rangers would not fail so long as Puckett had a voice.  In his several transits, he experienced several more wounds, but knew he had to subordinate their effect to his task.

This pattern of assault, retreat under artillery and re-attack was repeated twice more.  Artillery combined with Ranger small arms created windrows of bodies along the hill. Puckett insured each position was functioning and provided constant physical presence-a priceless quality under stressful circumstances. Ammo was becoming scarce and it was clear that bayonets would ultimately decide issue.

Very quickly, the sixth assault began.  Puckett’s call for artillery was denied as other elements were equally under siege and required the limited availability.  Puckett knew the position could not be held absent artillery and began to plan for an extraction to prevent annihilation. Methodically and with mindless casualties, the Chinese began the systematic infiltration into the Ranger lines turning the battle into a series of individual actions rather than an organizational confrontation.

Puckett was suddenly rendered physically incapable when a pair of light mortar rounds impacted on his position.  He lay in his hole, draped across the parapet and ordered his men to make an organized withdrawal off the hill, which they began to do.

The Rangers, discipline still intact despite significant casualties, began to sidle down the hill bringing their wounded and dead continuously firing into the dense advancing masses.  Puckett remained in his foxhole, awaiting what he knew would be the end.  He could already see the Chinese bayoneting other Rangers.

At this point, two Rangers understood that their commander was left behind.  Within them, they understood that Rangers leave no one behind.  They would not this time.  Pfc. Billy G. Walls and Pfc. David L. Pollack, acting with intuitive instinct, quickly changed direction and scrambled to Puckett’s position.

They found him helpless but coherent.   He told them to abandon him to save themselves, something they would not allow to happen.  Walls grabbed him, draping the limp Puckett over his back and began to quickly half run, half slide down the frozen scree below.  Exhausted at the base of the hill, Walls dropped Puckett.  He and Pollack each took an arm and dragged him on his back across the bullet swept plain.

Quickly, several tanks emerged up the road in response to Puckett’s final call for help.  The Rangers quickly coalesced around them and returned to the main defensive line………with Ranger Lt Ralph Puckett, grievously wounded, but immensely proud of his men.  His wounds were of such severity he was evacuated to Japan.  His war was over but not his spirit, attitude or selfless dedication to the men that he served.  Ralph Puckett represents the distilled essence of what we are all about as a Nation and what it means to be a Ranger. Puckett truly Led The Way.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.



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