By Senior Airman Harry Brexel
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Few Americans can say they served in three major wars, fewer still can say they were a member of four different branches of the U.S. military. However, Ret. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Earl “Sam” Puckett has achieved both.
His journey began in 1943, as a 17-year-old Arkansan who enlisted in the U.S. Navy — little did Puckett know, Uncle Sam had different plans for him. Before he was able to begin training at naval boot camp, he was chosen as a volunteer to enlist into the U.S. Marines instead.
“I remember leaving for the (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) Parris Island in South Carolina,” Puckett said. “I don’t think I heard a kind word my entire time there.”
Upon graduating, Puckett made the journey across the U.S. and Pacific Ocean to Saipan. Within one year of enlisting, Puckett entered the fight in World War II as a member of the 2nd Marine Division.
Fighting became brutal and prolonged. Japanese soldiers launched a massive banzai infantry charge and routine tasks made the difference between life and death.
“I first fought in Saipan as a beach bastion,” Puckett said. “We had to get to the beach by jumping off our main vessel into a smaller boat. I carried a bazooka, a clip, two canteens and two days’ rations. If you didn’t make it onto the boat, you didn’t make it at all.”
Following Saipan, Puckett fought on Iwojima and then Okinawa.
After his extensive tour in Japan, Puckett’s enlistment with the U.S. Marine Corps came to an end. However, he returned home as a different person.
“I didn’t want to be around people,” Puckett said. “I was only comfortable around other military folks.”
After only five months as a civilian, Puckett decided to join the military again. This time, he enlisted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 759th Military Police Battalion in Berlin, Germany.
“In 1948, the Russians blocked the roads and railways into parts of Berlin,” Puckett said. “But the U.S. Air Force provided rations to the Germans in need. There’s no telling how many missions U.S. troops flew to help the citizens of Berlin.”
On the first day of the Berlin Airlift, or Operation Vittles, approximately 100 U.S. Air Force C-47s made 32 flights into Berlin with 80 tons of cargo, mainly powdered milk, flour and medicine.
Soon after his tour in Germany, Puckett returned home and left the Army. He then joined the U.S. Air Force, which became a separate military service branch from the Army in 1947.
In the Air Force, Puckett returned to Germany and briefly fought in Korea on combat search and rescue helicopters, such as the Sikorsky H-19 “Chickasaw.”
Upon returning home and working at multiple stateside bases, Puckett soon left for Asia. This time, he arrived to fight in the Vietnam War.
“Throughout the early 1960s, I fought in the Vietnam War but I spent the majority of my time in Laos and Cambodia,” Puckett said.
Puckett worked in communications during the Vietnam War. As American involvement in the conflict increased, so did the support for information transmission systems, such as radar.
“I was lucky to make it home,” Puckett said. “I’ll never forget how awful the weather was and the friends I lost.”
After serving more than 27 years, Puckett retired in the grade of master sergeant, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Soon after retiring, Puckett obtained a bachelor’s degree in education and became a history teacher.
Puckett now works as a substitute teacher and spends his time with his two children and wife of more than 60 years.
“If I had the option of doing it all over again, I would,” Puckett said.
An inspiration for current and future generations, Puckett’s story still inspires others today. His grand-nephew currently serves at Little Rock AFB, and his great grandchildren listen to his memoirs in awe.
“Opportunities to hear stories from the Greatest Generation are fleeting,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Puckett, 714th Training Squadron commander. “Some of my greatest moments are listening to my grandpa and great uncle talk about why they served and their willingness to serve.”