Carl E. Ledbetter Sr., the featured speaker Monday for the Bulloch County Memorial Day service, survived the Korean War in an Army intelligence unit and still will not, or under oath cannot, talk about exactly what he did.
But many of the young men with whom he went through boot camp were killed in action, as were a few he met while attached to various units in Korea. Ledbetter thinks of them and others like them each Memorial Day.
“Oh yes, oh yes, I sure do,” said Ledbetter, a retired Baptist minister, hospice chaplain and mental health professional, now 81.
Preparing his remarks a few days ago, he was considering a focus on the Korean War and the sacrifices it involved, but still researching the details and unsure of the final shape his speech will take.
“But it will be about those who lost their lives,” he said.
It is in honor of America’s military service personnel who died in all wars, and of Bulloch County’s war dead in particular, that Monday’s service is held. Hosted as it has been for years by American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90, the program will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the Emma Kelly Theater at the Averitt Center for the Arts.
Dr. Michael Braz will play musical selections to open the observance. Local officials will join veterans, such as Post 90 Commander Terry Preslar and Post Chaplain Charles Williams, in offering prayers, poems and recitations on the meaning of Memorial Day. Various readers, many of them veterans, will then take part in intoning the names of Bulloch County’s fallen warriors, war by war, before Ledbetter speaks.
Ledbetter has been a Bulloch County resident since 1980. But he started life in Polk County in northwestern Georgia. It was there, as a 17-year-old, that he joined the Army in the summer of 1950.
“No, no, I wasn’t expecting to go when I enlisted,” Ledbetter said. “I enlisted on the 16th of June, and war broke out on the 27th.”
Forces from communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea, on June 25, 1950. But June 27 was when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on member nations to come to the defense of South Korea, and President Harry Truman that same day ordered U.S. forces into action.
Ledbetter went through basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Most of the men with whom he trained there were sent immediately to Korea, and so wound up in brutal fighting in late 1950 through early 1951.
But Ledbetter was found to have a special talent and given months of additional training. It was later, while in Korea, that he learned the fate of many of the young men he had met in boot camp.
“I came across one of the men in Korea, and he told me that most of them – I couldn’t verify that – but he said that most of those boys were killed,” Ledbetter said. “They sent them right on over when they finished boot camp, and they were killed in action.”
As for what his special talent was, Ledbetter is still not saying. He served in Korea from early December 1951 until January 1953, and upon returning, received a debriefing in Washington, D.C., not to reveal top secret information.
“I swore under oath I’d never divulge it, and my name is not Snowden,” Ledbetter said.
What he does reveal is that he was a corporal in Seoul when the call came down for a noncommissioned officer to lead a special team, and he volunteered. Soon promoted to sergeant, he and a lieutenant headed the team that included some South Koreans and Chinese, as well as Americans.
The team was attached to several different infantry units in progression. First they served with the 25th Infantry Division, later with the Kansas Army National Guard, and then with the Turkish Brigade.
When Ledbetter arrived in Korea at the end of 1951, the war was largely at a stalemate.
“As a matter of fact, we were not allowed to fire on the enemy unless they fired at us,” he said.
But fierce fighting resumed at times during his deployment, and he knows firsthand of officers and enlisted men who were killed.
One was a lieutenant colonel who was looking out a narrow viewing slot in a bunker when a mortar shell exploded and a piece of shrapnel hit him in the neck.
Another was a young African-American soldier who went out on patrol the night before he was scheduled to leave the front to go home. Ledbetter watched from the side of a mountain as a terrible firefight developed. He remembers how flares and tracer bullets lit up the sky.
The young soldier survived the fighting, but was the last to return. A sentry repeatedly called for the approaching man to identify himself.
“Three times he asked for the password and he didn’t say a word, and he shot and killed him,” Ledbetter said.
The violence of the war also touched Ledbetter’s own family when his brother William, two years older, was wounded. He was serving on the Yalu River with the 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, when hit by rifle fire. This was during the early advance of U.N. forces to the border of China. William Ledbetter fully recovered and continued a career of more than 20 years, also serving in Vietnam. He died in 2007.
Unlike his brother, Carl Ledbetter returned to civilian life immediately after the war. Their parents had moved to Wayne County in southeastern Georgia, where he met his wife, Betty. They will mark their 60th anniversary this month. They have two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Their daughter is Belinda O’Connell of Waycross. Their son, Statesboro Herald Assistant Editor Eddie Ledbetter, is scheduled to introduce his father as speaker.
Blue and Gray
American Legion Post 90 Senior Vice Commander Dan Foglio, who has organized the observance for almost a decade, will serve as master of ceremonies.
New this year is a “Blue and Gray” segment of the intoning of fallen warriors, Foglio noted. Jimmy Alderman will lead it. Previous years’ readings began with World War I, but the new segment will include some names of area Civil War dead. More will be intoned in subsequent years.
“There’s a lot of families here, that are still here, that live here, that lost men folk in the Civil War,” Foglio said. “That’s going to be something that we’ve never done before.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.