More than 20 Vietnam veterans descended on Beaufort Sept. 6 like they used to buzz into the jungle in CH-46 helicopters named after rock bands.
They came from Washington state, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Texas, Maine, Florida and elsewhere to surprise their old commanding officer.
Their mission was to celebrate the 84th birthday of retired Marine Col. Walt Ledbetter of Lady's Island. He headed their "Gopher Broke" HMM-263 squadron for six months in 1968 and 1969.
Back then, he was a lieutenant colonel, 39, and as good a CH-46 pilot as there was in the world.
They were lieutenants, maybe 23, fresh out of college, all volunteers in a squadron that didn't have the majors and captains it should have had to do the jobs they did.
Ledbetter tries to explain it to someone who wasn't there:
"On a pitch-ass black night going up into the Quay Son mountains, and you don't have any instruments to direct you, it's all by eyesight, you can't see, you're going up canyons to get guys out. It's just scary as hell. And to have a kid who hadn't flown that much do it time and time again ..."
MEDAL OF HONOR
Ledbetter has always heard from his men. He and Nancy have two daughters, but the colonel likes to say he has 150 sons.
They do it because "he was quite the leader of men," said a reunion organizer, Duncan MacRae of Columbia. "If it was his turn to fly, he did it. Sometimes a 'heavy,' we called them, would avoid a dangerous situation and let a lieutenant do it."
Ledbetter flew more than 500 missions in three tours in Vietnam.
He was the pilot on Jan. 31, 1970, when a chopper they called "Blood, Sweat & Tears" landed before dawn on a minefield near Da Nang. A platoon had been lured into the field and were being shot at. Crew chief Pfc. Raymond "Mike" Clausen Jr. disobeyed orders and went into the field six times. They brought home four dead, four unharmed and 11 seriously wounded.
Clausen earned the Medal of Honor and Ledbetter the Navy Cross.
In 2006, Ledbetter got a phone call from a stranger looking for the people who saved his life that day. Ledbetter told Ed West of Stuarts Draft, Va., that, yes, he was there the day West lost both his legs. They talked for 45 minutes.
"That's probably the best thing that's ever happened to me," Ledbetter said. "I was not able to even talk to my wife about it. Just talking about it helps you forget, or get over it."
In 2007, six men rescued from that minefield and three of the helicopter crew members were reunited at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte for the dedication of the "Blood, Sweat & Tears" exhibit. The aircraft was restored by volunteers after being disabled in a hard landing in Iraq in 2004.
The colonel's daughter Melissa Ledbetter, a teacher at Hilton Head Island Middle School, said she watched grown men cry at the dedication in Charlotte. And she heard things about her father she never knew.
West has since passed away. Clausen died on Memorial Day 2004 at age 56 of liver failure. Ledbetter was the keynote speaker three years later when a monument bought by veterans was placed at Clausen's grave in Ponchatoula, La.
West also spoke. "This is not only for him," he told the crowd. "This is your Vietnam Wall in south Louisiana."
'IT IS MEDICINAL'
Ledbetter was stunned on that recent Friday night when he got to the top of the stairs at Panini's restaurant on Beaufort's picturesque Bay Street.
He saw a crowd, then noticed they were standing in a long line facing the stairs. And then they started singing "Happy Birthday."
The "Gophers" who still get together, most of them pilots, have been successful in life. Ledbetter said Vietnam taught them they could do anything. He said one has sailed around the world twice, one is the best lawyer in Boston, one has houses all over the country.
Duncan MacRae and his brother, Douglas "Scottie" MacRae, own Yesterday's restaurant, a fixture in Columbia's Five Points section for 35 years.
"I don't think anybody copes with war in any fashion," Duncan MacRae said. "I was hitting the bottle heavy when I got out. It helps to get together because the other guys understand what you're talking about. You tell stories, get it off your chest. It is medicinal. A bond was formed because of the danger. Their lives depended on you and your life depended on them, so you get real close."
They all stayed at the Beaufort Inn and enjoyed parties and dinners throughout the weekend.
Then the old colonel got shot back down to earth with a colonoscopy two days later.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.
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