Leonard Ertell Ledbetter was born May 25, 1933, in Wirmingham, Tennessee, to John “Johnny” Jackson Ledbetter, and Ruby Ree Shewmake. He had an older brother, Donald Eugene. His mother died February 17, 1938, from epilepsy when Leonard was 4 years old.1 2 At the time of the 1940 U.S. Census, his father had remarried Colleen L. and they had an 11-month-old baby. Leonard was listed as Ertell.3 He was called by his middle name by his family. He graduated from Martin High School, Martin, Michigan, in 1951.
He was married three times – first to Mona in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with whom he had one son, Robert. They divorced in January 1956. Then he married Irene Ruth Briggs Deaux on July 12, 1957, in Angola, Steuben County, Indiana.4 They had two daughters, Deborah Ann and Sharon Lynn. They divorced in July 1974 in Ames, IA. He married Pauline Frances Raim Uthoff April 13, 1975, in Eldora, Iowa. He was stepfather to her four children. It was a new life for him, and he immersed himself in it.5 In 1981, Leonard and Pauline were living in Bettendorf, Iowa.6
He served in the Navy for three years, joining January 25, 1951, and was a dentalman (dental assistant) from June to September 1951. In February 1953, he went to the Field Medical Service. On April 23, 1953, he was on the Marine Corps Muster Roll for C Co. 8th Engineer Bn, Fleet Marine Force at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.7 He was listed as going on leave, a DN, and in the USN. He was honorably discharged March 22, 1954.8
After his discharge, Leonard married Mona, divorced in January 1956, married Irene in July 1956, and moved to Michigan until the economy took a downward turn. He and his wife then moved to California. He was a level 4, step 5 postal clerk in Ventura, California, from January 1962 to September 1965. He and Irene divorced in July 1974 at Ames, Story Co, IA.9
Leonard joined the Army at the age of 34 on November 2, 1967, during the Vietnam War. It was his way of protesting the anti-war protesters.10 He and his family lived in Ventura, California, at the time. He went to basic training at Ft. Ord, California. During basic, he was a platoon guide, selected as trainee leader, and promoted to PFC upon graduation. He then became acting corporal and assistant squad leader in AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and was selected to attend the non-commissioned officers’ course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He became the first grandfather in AIT at Ft. Polk in March of 1968, when his son had a baby. In March of 1970, Leonard completed a course of instruction in and graduated from Drill Sergeant School at Fort Polk Academy.11
Leonard served two tours in Vietnam. He earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, among other awards. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action on February 6, 1971, in the Republic of Vietnam while a SSGT with Co. B, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry. He was part of the 101st Airborne Division. The entire 101st participated in Operation Dewey Canyon II, in support of the ARVN attack on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in February–March 1971.12 His citation read:
For gallantry in action while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Staff Sergeant Ledbetter distinguished himself on 6 February 1971 while serving as a squad leader during combat operations in Thua Thien Province, Republic of Vietnam. When one of his platoon’s mechanical ambushes was detonated, Sergeant Ledbetter discovered a blood trail leading away from the area. Immediately he began to follow it. Upon sighting a small enemy element, Sergeant Ledbetter moved to the front of the platoon and continued the pursuit. Coming upon an enemy bunker, he maneuvered forward and destroyed it with hand grenades. Discovering that the blood trail continued, Sergeant Ledbetter led his element forward. While crossing a clearing, his element came under hostile fire which wounded several of his men. Subjecting himself to the hostile fire Sergeant Ledbetter searched the thick vegetation until he successfully engaged the enemy. Later he provided cover fire enabling the friendly casualties to be safely evacuated. Staff Sergeant Ledbetter’s gallantry in action was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army. Signed by John M. Byrne, Adjutant General, for the Commander, Donald A. Seibert, Colonel, GS, Chief of Staff, dated March 25, 197113
The 101st Airborne was ordered into Thua Thien to participate in a civil operation designed to bolster the South Vietnamese government forces. They established a series of fire and patrol bases and conducted several operations that prevented the enemy from re-entering Thua Thien.14
The 101st Airborne also provided valuable technical training to the South Vietnamese forces and supported several of their operations into Laos to cut off enemy supply and infiltration lines. These operations were designed to allow the South Vietnamese Army to operate on their own and turn over the fight to them. This was called “Vietnamization.”
Leonard also earned the Bronze Star Medal by distinguishing himself by outstanding meritorious service in connection with military operations against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam during the period September 1970 to September 1971.15 In March of 1971, he also received the Air Medal for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight in the Republic of Vietnam on November 6, 1970.16 In addition, Major General Thomas M. Tarpley from the Headquarters 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) gave to SSG Ledbetter the Brave Eagle Coin. The letter that went with the coin said:
- The history of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) from World War II to Vietnam is rich with the valorous deeds of some of the bravest men who ever fought in battle. As a recipient of an award for valor, you have personally made a significant contribution to this history and to the successful accomplishment of the Screaming Eagle mission.
- As a special recognition of your valorous actions, you are presented a Brave Eagle Coin, symbolizing your willingness to give above and beyond the call of duty.
- Please accept, also, my personal thanks and congratulations. Your valor marks you as one who – like this great division – has met the challenge of our Rendezvous with Destiny in Vietnam. All the Way, Airborne!17
In late 1971 and early 1972 the 101st Airborne Division began returning home to Fort Campbell. It was the last Army Division to leave South Vietnam.
In the Republic of Vietnam, the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) fought in 45 operations, spanning nearly seven years (Leonard was not involved all those years). Throughout South Vietnam, the division demonstrated its strength and spirit as a fighting unit.18 During those seven years the division suffered 4,011 killed and 18,259 wounded in action. Seventeen of the division’s Medal of Honor recipients are from this time period – all this giving the 101st Airborne Division a combat record unmatched by any other division.
After Vietnam, Leonard married Pauline in 1975 and became an Army recruiter. The date he entered active duty for this period was October 14, 1975.19 He first was a recruiter in Ames, Iowa, moving to Decorah, Dubuque, and the Quad Cities in Iowa, and then to Peoria, Illinois, where he retired from the Army on September 30, 1984, after 20 years of service. Leonard was discharged as Master Sergeant, E-8.
His DD-214 lists the following decorations, medals, badges, citations and campaign ribbons awarded:
Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal (5th Award), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Air Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal w/60 Device, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm, Army Service Ribbon, NCO Professional Development Ribbon (3), Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Badge (M-16), and Basic Recruiter Badge w/3 Gold Achievement Stars.
The Meritorious Service Medal was presented to Master Sergeant Ledbetter on September 18, 1984, for performance of his duties during his career with the United States Army and most recently with the Recruiting Battalion Peoria from March 1973 to September 1984.20
In 1984, Leonard began work for the Army Recruiting Command in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1991, Leonard was the civilian public affairs officer for the Des Moines Army Recruiting Battalion. This was during the Persian Gulf War. The Army had a nationwide recruitment goal of 25,700 soldiers for the first quarter of 1991. They enlisted 26,900. Leonard said in a news article that, “We’re consistently exceeding our numbers in Iowa.”
He retired in 1991. He had been employed at the Army Recruiting Command, Des Moines, for seven years. He was affiliated with the Masonic Lodge and was a member of Epworth United Methodist Church in Des Moines.
5 Personal phone interview with wife, Pauline Ledbetter, on June 9, 2022
7 Ancestry.com – U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 Muster Roll – Unit Diary dated 23 Apr 53 Camp Lejeune, NC, C Co 8th EngrBn FMF
8 Honorable Discharge Certificate dated March 22, 1954, from the U.S. Navy
10 The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) · 24 Mar 1968, Sun · Page 22 Downloaded on May 2, 2022 – Newspapers.com
11 Diploma dated 14 March 1970 Honor Graduate Drill Sergeant School, provided by Pauline Ledbetter
13 From Announcement of the Award of Silver Star to Staff Sergeant Leonard E. Ledbetter from Department of the Army, Headquarters 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), APO San Francisco 96383, provided by Leonard’s wife, Pauline Ledbetter
15 Bronze Star Medal Citation provided by Pauline Ledbetter
16 The Air Medal Certificate dated March 17, 1971, signed by the Secretary of the Army and Thomas M. Tarpley, Major General.
17 Letter from the Commanding General of the Headquarters 101st Airborne Division, Subject: Brave Eagle Coin (it is not dated)
19 DD-214 Certificate of Discharge from Active Duty September 30, 1984
20 Meritorious Service Medal Citation dated September 19, 1984, and signed by J.O. Bradshaw, Major General, Commanding, provided by Pauline Ledbetter
22 Personal Interview with Brenda (Ledbetter) Conley, Leonard’s half sister