On Wednesday, August 9, 2023, at 9:30 PM Colonel Walter R. Ledbetter USMC Retired, passed away at the age of 94. He completed this last mission and now may he rest in peace.
For those who knew him understood he was special kind of Marine and more importantly, a special kind of man – Colonel Ledbetter made a difference to all who knew him; especially those under his command of HMM-263 at Marble Mountain Air Facility, Vietnam. I was fortunate to have served with him and will never forget and forever cherish the time I spent with him. He was a giant among giants.
Today, at 1:00 PM EDT memorial services for “The Skipper” will be held at MCAS Buford, S.C., and I thought it fitting to honor him in the best way I know how, by relating a tale that occurred in December 1969.
It was mid-December and four Marine helicopter crews waited in the med-evac shack next to the runway at Marble Mountain Air Facility. It was about 2:00 AM on a cold and rainy night when the call came in that a Marine force-recon patrol had been ambushed in a box canyon 40 miles west of Da Nang, leaving a lone survivor surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers.
Within minutes, two UH-1E “Huey” gunships (call sign “Hostage” and two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters (call sign Peachbush) were airborne. The mission of the nimbler Hueys was to provide covering fire, while the ‘46s, would affect the actual rescue. But when the four birds arrived in the area where the solitary Marine was located, they found a low cloud cover. Knowing the danger that two Ch-46s and two “Hueys” in a box canyon flying in such close proximity at night and in the rain, Colonel Ledbetter, who was piloting the lead ‘46, instructed his wingman to stay above the low hanging clouds as he spiraled his ‘46 into the box canyon.
Locating a camouflaged Marine at night in the jungle can be challenging, and the wind- driven rain made this rescue operation even more daunting. To help guide the pilots during night rescue operations, recon Marines would insert a strobe light into the bottom of the three-foot hollow tubes they carried in case they needed to be rescued at night. The Marines would point the tube in the direction of the sound of the incoming helicopters and place a flashing strobe light just inside the bottom of the tube so that it was visible to the pilots in the air but concealed from the bad guys on the ground (GPS didn’t exist in 1969, so a flashing strobe thru a 3 foot tube was the prevailing technology.)
Meanwhile, the Colonel’s eyesight wasn’t what it once was, so his co-pilot, 1st Lieutenant L.S. Butch Mazzuca was calling out airspeed and radar altimeter readings, watching the attitude-gyro and keeping ‘loose hands’ on the controls while the CO maneuvered the aircraft. But things never go quite as planned in combat and when the surrounded Marine flashed his strobe in the direction of the rescue helicopter, the starboard gunner on the colonel’s ‘46 who was flying his first mission in Vietnam mistook the flashing strobe light for enemy fire and opened up with his .50 caliber machine gun. After a panicked “You’re firing on me, you’re firing on me!” radio call, the gunner ceased. But the cat was out of the bag.
Every fifth round of a .50 cal is a tracer so gunners can see exactly where they’re firing. But tracers are a two-way gift and now the bad guys simply followed the source of the tracers and opened up on lead ’46. Meanwhile, UH-1E “Hueys” were laying down suppressing fire while the ’46, was maneuvering to the only place where they could pick up the Marine, an outcropping on side of a hill. To the uninitiated, it’s virtually impossible to hover a helicopter on instruments; a pilot needs a fixed point of reference but the visibility that night was all but non-existent—the Colonel was flying by braille.
As the Huey’s circled the pilot of the lead Huey did not see us and was banking hard right to make his “gun run” and crossed in front of us so close that both the colonel and I could see the lights of Huey’s instrument panel – then in what was typical of the Skipper, he deadpanned over the radio, “Hey Hostage, you’re cutting it kind of close there.” Only the extremely steep angle of bank of the Huey and the grace of God kept the two birds from a mid-air collision in that box canyon.
When we finally located the Marine, the tactical situation dictated that the ’46 “back-in” to the outcropping. So, the colonel backed the big ’46 in all while being guided foot-by-foot and then inch-by-inch by our crew chief who was kneeling aft by the open ramp door and directing the Colonel over the intercom. Meanwhile, I was “on instruments,” and nudging the controls every time our aircraft banked more than a degree or drifted more than a foot in either direction.
With the consummate skill of a seasoned Naval Aviator, Colonel Ledbetter managed to get one of our landing gear wheels on the outcropping in a “quasi-hover” and the crew chief pulled the Marine aboard. And today, there’s probably a “70-something” former recon Marine telling his grandkids a great story.
While flying back to First Med with the rescued Marine the Colonel contacted the squadron on the radio and asked to be relieved. After landing, refueling, and filling out our after-action reports the pilots of the four birds met up in the Skipper’s hootch and polished off two bottles of scotch before breakfast. We were hot, tired, and exhausted when we entered the mess hall around 0500 and must have smelled like a distillery walking thru the chow line for a well-earned breakfast. But this story isn’t complete. Unbeknownst to most of the junior officers or those not in Ops, the Skipper kept a separate mission board that most of the lieutenants (like me) were unaware of—a mission board where specific missions were outlined in red grease pencil.
I later learned these were known as “Red Box Missions”—missions that cause pilots to lose sleep at night, i.e., any mission with a high probability of enemy contact. And this was a “Red Box” mission. And it was only years later that I learned the Colonel had a standing order that every co- pilot in the squadron was to fly his first red box mission with the Colonel himself—and what else I didn’t know, was that for me, it was my HAC check flight. (HAC is an acronym for Helicopter Aircraft Commander.)
Meanwhile, while we junior officers rotated flying a variety of missions, the Skipper primarily flew only Red Box missions. Now to provide necessary context to this story, once at a squadron reunion the Skipper shared there was a period between December 1969 and February 1970 when our squadron, HMM-263, took more hits from enemy fire than the rest of the 1st Marine Air Wing combined—most of which occurred during these Red Box missions.
Fast forward to Honolulu Hawaii, 48 years later where my wife Bobbi and I met the Skipper and his wife Nancy for lunch. During the conversation that particular mission came up, and honestly, I don’t know how or why but Skipper said, “Butch that was your first night medevac.” To which I replied, “Skipper, how on earth do you remember that?” He looked at me and said, “Butch, I took all co-pilots out on their first night medevac before they made HAC.” Then Nancy said, “I remember when Walt wrote to me about that mission,” and told us how the Colonel had written to her two weeks before she was to meet him Honolulu for R&R telling her to bring their two daughters.
In an emotional moment, Nancy confided that the Skipper made that request because “He wanted us in Hawaii so he could say good-bye because he was fearful this would be the last time he would see his family.” Yet the Colonel never wavered in his duty and kept flying the most dangerous missions the squadron was assigned, all while providing leadership to the men under his command.
I admire and respect Colonel Walt Ledbetter more than any individual I’ve ever known. And I thought it fitting to pay tribute to the man who to me, epitomizes all that is noble and courageous in a U.S. Marine. I will close this account by saying I don’t know where we find such men but I thank God that we do.
*Co-Pilot’s footnote: After the mission the Skipper finally did have his eyes examined and got a shiny new pair of glasses from our squadron’s flight surgeon..and kept is flight status.