It was mid-December 1969, 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, rainy night when the call came from DaNang DASC that a Marine force-recon patrol had been ambushed, leaving a lone survivor in a box canyon 40 miles west of Da Nang.
Within minutes, two Huey gunships (call sign “Hostage”) and two, CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters (call sign “Peachbush”) were airborne. The more nimble Huey gunships would provide cover, while one of the larger tandem rotor ‘46s, would make the actual rescue.
When the four “birds” arrived in the area where the solitary Marine was located, they found a low cloud cover so the squadron’s CO (commanding officer) Colonel Walter R. Ledbetter, who was flying the lead ‘46, instructed his wingman to stay above the low clouds as he spiraled his big helicopter into the box canyon.
In these types of situations if the lead aircraft is shot down it’s the wingman’s job to complete the mission and/or to rescue the crew of the downed bird. But on this night, the colonel reasoned three birds in the tight box canyon was less dangerous than four even though it diminished the chances of a successful rescue should his aircraft be shot down.
Locating a camouflaged Marine at night in the jungle is a challenge, 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 sometimes carried, and then point the tube in the direction of the sound of the incoming helicopter. GPS didn’t exist in ’69, so a flashing strobe visible to the pilots in the air but concealed from the bad guys on the ground was the existing “technology.”
Meanwhile, the colonel’s eyesight wasn’t what it once was, so his co-pilot was calling out airspeed and radar altimeter readings, watching the attitude-gyro and keeping ‘loose hands’ on the controls while the CO maneuvered the bird to pick up the lone Marine.
But things never go quite as planned in combat, and when the surrounded Marine flashed his strobe the starboard gunner who was flying his first mission in Vietnam mistook the flashes 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 anyone who’s experienced combat knows tracers work both ways, and now the bad guys could see where the tracers were coming from and the lead ‘46 was soon taking fire from four quadrants.
The Hueys were laying down suppressing fire while the ’46, maneuvered to the only place they could pick up the Marine, an outcropping in the mountainous terrain. 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.
The tactical situation dictated that the ’46 literally “back-in” to the outcropping, and the big rescue bird was literally being guided foot-by-foot, then inch-by-inch by its crew chief who was kneeling aft by the open ramp door, and directing the Colonel over the intercom while the co-pilot, who was “on instruments,” nudged the controls every time the aircraft drifted the slightest—and lest we forget, all this occurred while the aircraft was under intense enemy fire.
The Colonel managed to get one of the landing gear wheels on the outcropping in a “quasi-hover” and the crew chief pulled the Marine aboard. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you the mission was successful and there’s probably a 70-year old ex-recon Marine somewhere in America telling this story to his grandkids today.
But this story isn’t complete because Colonel Ledbetter kept a separate mission board that the junior officers 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 getting shot out of the sky. This was a “Red Box” mission.
It was only years later that I learned the Colonel had a standing order that every new co-pilot to join the squadron was to fly his first red box mission with the Colonel himself. This meant that while the junior officers rotated flying these missions, these were the only missions the Skipper flew. (Note, in the Marine Corps, the commanding officer is referred to as the Skipper.)
To provide necessary context to this story, there was a period between December 1969 and February 1970 when our squadron 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 a squadron reunion 48 years later when my wife Bobbi and I were talking with the Skipper’s wife Nancy. Nancy related how the Colonel had written to her two weeks before she was to meet him in Honolulu for R&R and how he insisted that she bring their two young daughters.
In an emotional moment, Nancy confided that the Skipper made that request because vis-à-vis flying these red box missions and the number of hits our aircraft were taking, he was convinced this would be the last time he would ever see his family – and he wanted this time in Hawaii with them to say good-bye.
Yet the Skipper 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 met, and on this Veterans Day, I thought it fitting to pay tribute to a man who to me, epitomizes all that is decent, noble & courageous in a veteran.
I don’t know where we find such men, but thank God that we do.
Quote of the day: “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave”—Elmer Davis