In Memoriam: Lt. Robert L. Ledbetter, USN
Today is Memorial Day, 2020. It is the day our nation has set aside to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country. While I have had the honor of knowing far too many young men who gave the last measure of devotion, I want to take this opportunity to remember one in particular, Lieutenant Robert L. Ledbetter.
Lt. Ledbetter was the chaplain when I first checked into 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in April, 1984. Now, something you may not know: the Marine Corps doesn’t have their own chaplains. Like our corpsmen, we get them from the Naval Chaplain Corps. You may have heard that Marines are hell raisers. Well, that’s true as it goes, but the chaplain’s job is to not only try and redeem the souls of those hell raisers, but act as a counselor for those Marines who find themselves troubled by their profession.
In this respect, Lt. Ledbetter was a giant of a man. He made it a point to know every Marine in the battalion. He treated everyone, regardless of rank or religion, with the utmost courtesy and respect. What’s more, he didn’t patronize us because of our youth. He understood, probably better than we did, that we had chosen a rough business to be part of and what that business could do to a man’s soul and his humanity. He had a unique talent for being able to talk to you, man to man, and letting you walk away from the conversation not only feeling better about life, but better about yourself. No matter what trouble you came to him with, whether the most intimate or the silliest, Lt. Ledbetter seemed to always know what to say.
3/4 was designated Battalion Landing Team 3/4 and assigned to the 26th Marine Amphibious Unit for a Mediterranean expedition. We were all excited. We would be spending the winter of 1985-6 in the sunny Mediterranean, and our months spent undergoing training to become Special Operations capable meant we would be the very pointy tip of the spear.
Before we sailed north to Norfolk to join up with our escorts, we were to take part in a “dog & pony” show. That is, we were to stage a mock amphibious assault on the beach at Camp Lejeune for the benefit of the media. It was the sort of thing we had done dozens of times. Nobody expected any trouble.
The morning of October 15, 1985 was chilly and foggy. Before boarding my CH-46 for the beach landing, I heard Lt. Ledbetter call out, “LCpl Rothfeldt!”
My primary MOS (that’s your job title) was Radio Repairman. Now, there’s not much radio repairing happening out in the field. You might be able to patch up a broken switch or rig up something to attach a cracked antenna, but if the radio is kaput, it needs to wait until the unit returns to the rear to get maintenance. So what does the Marine Corps do with their radio repairmen when in the field? They train them up to handle other jobs. So I was assigned as an auxillary radio operator for field operations with Company K (Kilo Company). That meant I was to fly with elements of Kilo’s headquarters staff, instead of Headquarters & Service Company.
The reason Lt. Ledbetter was asking for me was simple: he wanted to fly in with the line company, to show his solidarity with the grunts. He had already cleared it with both the colonel and the company commander, so who was I to say no? I stepped out of the “stick” and moved on to the next helo, while Lt. Ledbetter took my spot.
What happened next will remain etched on my mind forever.
Almost immediately after lifting off, the CH-46 Lt. Ledbetter and 15 other Marines were flying in began flying erratically. Before anyone could say “what happened,” the helicopter pitched over, nose first, straight into the water. Time seemed frozen for a moment, a heartbeat, a second that felt like a lifetime. And then all pandemonium broke out.
The alarm klaxons on the USS Guadalcanal began sounding. Marines from India Company (which was our boat assault force) redirected their boats to the area where the helo went into the water to search for survivors. There was only one, the copilot. 15 men, including our beloved chaplain, were killed that dreary morning.
In the 35 years since that fateful day, I’ve often found myself asking why. Why didn’t I ask the Padre to switch with someone else? Why did he pick me to switch with? Why was a fine man, a man of God, a man everybody respected and admired, the one to die and not me? And there’s one more thing I want to know.
I want to know why Lt. Robert L. Ledbetter isn’t here to answer these questions. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish he was.
Fair winds and following seas, Padre.