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South Korean president to honor U.S. Korean War vets during state visit to Washington

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will award his country’s highest decoration for valor to three American veterans of the Korean War during his upcoming state visit to Washington.

The six-day visit will mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea.

President Yoon will award the Taegeuk Order of Military Merit to retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett and retired Navy Captain Elmer Royce Williams. He will also posthumously honor former Marine Corps 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez, killed during the Inchon Landing in September 1950.

It will mark the first time a South Korean president has bestowed a military order outside the country, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Col. Puckett commanded the Eighth Army Ranger Company and fought off several waves of Chinese attackers after they captured Hill 205, a strategic location during the Battle of the Chongchon River in November 1950. He was wounded and spent almost a year in the hospital.

He was initially awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross after the battle. It was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor. President Biden presented Col. Puckett with the decoration during a White House ceremony in May 2021.

“Col. Puckett is a Korean War hero. The colonel fulfilled his missions to the end with superhuman valor and leadership in countless combat (operations) including the Battle of Hill 205,” said former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who attended the Medal of Honor ceremony. “His sacrifices and those of the troops of the U.S. Eighth Army Ranger Company and other Korean War veterans have enabled Korea to bring freedom and democracy to full bloom.”

Navy Captain Elmer Royce Williams shot down several Soviet jet fighters during a single dogfight in November 1952. He was flying the F9F Panther, the U.S. Navy’s first jet fighter, on a combat air patrol near the Yalu River, separating North Korea from China when seven MiG-15s jumped him.

Recently declassified Navy records said Captain Williams downed four fighters and likely hit two others with gunfire during a 35-minute dogfight. Navy crews found almost 300 bullet holes in his aircraft after he landed back on his aircraft carrier.

He later briefed top government officials — including President Eisenhower — about the air battle. However, they swore him to secrecy out of fear of inflaming tensions with the Soviet Union. His Navy Cross award identifies the MiG-15s he shot down as “enemy aircraft.”

A nephew of Baldomero Lopez will attend the ceremony on his behalf. He was killed on Sept. 15, 1950, during the Inchon Landing. He was struck by automatic fire as he was about to throw a hand grenade into an enemy pillbox. The explosive device fell to the ground.

“He turned and dragged his body forward in an effort to retrieve the grenade and throw it. In critical condition from pain and loss of blood, and unable to grasp the hand grenade firmly enough to hurl it, he chose to sacrifice himself rather than endanger the lives of his men,” according to the citation for the Medal of Honor he received posthumously.

With his wounded right arm, Lt. Lopez cradled the grenade under him and absorbed the full impact of the explosion.

A grandson of Army Gen. James Van Fleet, who commanded the U.S. 8th Army in Korea from 1951-1953 and the eldest daughter of Korean War hero General Paik Sun-yup will attend the event as invited guests, the Yonhap news agency reported.

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