GREENLAND -- From time to time, Dorothy Ledbetter wonders what her son would look like now, what he would be like.
At 10:20 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1969, Sgt. Sanford James Ledbetter died in a tank explosion near Phan Thiet in the Republic of Vietnam. He was 20 and had been in Vietnam less than 24 days.
"His friends that he went to school with and graduated with, they're grandparents," Dorothy says, almost in disbelief that 48 years have passed. "Sandy would be going on 70 years old, and to try to think what he would ... well, life just stops at that place."
Today, the nation honors its veterans, past and present. Dorothy's son is among the 592 Arkansans and more than 58,000 Americans killed in action in the Vietnam War, according to "The Arkansas Vietnam War Project" records at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System.
Arkansans killed in Vietnam War
Information gleaned from “The Arkansas Vietnam War Project” at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System shows that:
The state’s first serviceman killed in action was Walter H. Moon, 38, of Rudy in Crawford County. He died April 22, 1961.
In 1963, one Arkansan was killed in action — Odes Winston Jeffers, 19, of Brinkley in Monroe County, Feb. 28, 1963.
In 1964, Harold George Bennett, 24, of Perryville; Jimmy Cartwright, 28, Mountainburg; Guy Thomas Freeland, 35, of Russellville, were killed in action.
Killed in action totals for Arkansans for subsequent years were:
- 1965 — 14
- 1966 — 55
- 1967 — 118
- 1968 — 168
- 1969 — 121
- 1970 — 70
- 1971 — 27
- 1972 — 13
The last Arkansan killed in action in the Vietnam War was Marine Corps. Pfc. James Rickey Maxwell, 18, of Center Ridge in Conway County, died May 15, 1975.
— Data provided by the Butler Center
Remembering Sanford James Ledbetter
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website lists the following remembrances about Sanford James Ledbetter:
I knew Sandy and his family ever since I was a little girl. They were our next door neighbors in California when I was 6 and Sandy was 8. We are distantly related, but I’ve always thought of him as a cousin. I will never forget the day we heard the news. I visit his grave from time to time to pay my respects and have visited the memorial in Washington, D.C. It was overwhelming to stand before the wall and see all those precious names, each one representing a heart-broken family. To Sandy and all the other men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, “thank you” is not enough, but it’s all I have. You are never forgotten.
POSTED ON 6/29/17 - BY DIANA DAVIS
To my best friend and hero
I was a classmate with James and I will always remember that he was a true friend and passionate Patriot. He always followed Elvis during his service.
He was a good singer as well. His nickname was “Sandy”. He will always be in my heart and will always be missed. Rest is peace my dear friend….
POSTED ON 12/27/16 - BY GILBERT BLOYED
I never knew James, but went to school and was friends with his sister Rose at Greenland High School. The school presents The James Ledbetter Award every year to a graduate, and I was honored to receive this award in 1984. Thanks for all you sacrificed, and may you rest in peace.
POSTED ON 9/15/01 - BY BILL MESPLAY
Framed family photos, mostly 5-by-7s, line one wall of Dorothy's immaculate kitchen in her home south of Fayetteville. One 8-by-10 stands out. It's of Sandy, about 16, holding his toddler sister.
Dorothy, 85, smiles and recalls that by fifth grade Sandy had decided to go by James because he thought Sandy "sounded like a girl's name."
In a bulging scrapbook Dorothy chronicles his life with childhood photos of him with his Little League friends, with his bicycle, at the beach.
A few pages in is one of him in the Army. That photograph of him smiling and in his dress greens is the one on his headstone at Baptist Ford Community Cemetery.
Greenland hasn't forgotten James. Flowers and remembrances still show up at his grave. Some are from relatives. His mother doesn't know where the others come from, but her son had a lot of friends.
In Greenland, Sanford James Ledbetter is remembered as more than a name engraved between Duane G. Landis and Dale J. Lenio on Line 125, Panel 19W, on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
He grew up here exploring the woods and caves, returning home one time with his clothes so caked in mud that Dorothy had to throw them away. It's where he insisted on riding his grandfather's donkey, even though it threw him every time and he once ended up needing stitches.
James was born May 16, 1949, in Fayetteville. He started school at Greenland when he was 10 and graduated in 1967, one of 31 seniors.
"James was an all-American-type," says high school friend and Army buddy Dave Jorgensen. "He was one of those kids who was very well-liked, and just a great example of how a kid ought to be and act. He had this squared-off face and he played the guitar. He sang. He was an athlete.
"I just thought the guy would be famous one day."
James and Wayne Watkins were inseparable growing up, Dorothy says. They lived within walking distance of each other and often stayed overnight at each other's homes.
James liked to do "Boy Scout type things," Wayne recalls. "We'd camp out in the woods and collect sassafras root and boil it to make tea. ... We would do a little trapping on his grandfather's land. Before school, we'd go check on our traps. We never caught much."
He was a big Elvis Presley fan, too. James and Wayne went to see all the Elvis movies. Sometimes they would goof off, combing their hair like Elvis. James would play the guitar and the boys would sing.
James also played the lead in the high school play. He loved it so much that his mother still wonders if maybe he would have gone into acting.
"He liked stuff like that ... but he didn't have time to decide what he wanted to be," she says.
James, one of about a dozen kids on the football team, helped Greenland win the district championship his senior year. His jersey, No. 75, hangs in a wooden display case in the high school gym, beside his Bronze Star, his Purple Heart and the folded American flag that draped his coffin.
Every year the school presents the James Ledbetter Inspiration Award to a student-athlete who exhibits "dedication, desire, hustle, character, reliability, dependability and initiative." In 2011, the school dedicated "The Heroes' Stone," a monument that stands beside the football field, near the home-side bleachers. James' name is the first of three alumni names etched on it.
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL
James didn't talk much about what he wanted to do after graduation.
"We were just trying to figure it out, I guess," Wayne says.
Wayne got married and started working, while James enrolled at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The two saw each other, but not as often as before.
James and Dave Jorgensen were freshmen together at UA. James was in the National Society of Pershing Rifles -- a military-oriented honor society -- on campus. He and Dave also were in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, as required of male college students at the time.
James had an interest in the Army. Dave wasn't as interested, but they knew the draft was coming and that their draft numbers were low so they went ahead and joined.
"We thought we might come out as a four-star general or something," Dave recalls. "We were both 18. We were bulletproof."
They enlisted under the buddy system so they could stay together through basic combat training and advanced training.
In late August 1968, Dave and James traveled by bus to a testing center in Little Rock, where they went through screening and testing to determine their specialty fields. From Little Rock, they went to Fort Polk, La., for basic training.
"At the time, things were pretty hairy in Vietnam," Dave says.
In the quiet reserved way of his parents, James often asked Dave if he thought they'd be sent there. "He asked that question several times," Dave recalls. "I think he was trying to wrap his mind around that."
After basic training, Dave went to electronics school in New Jersey and James headed to armor school in Kentucky.
"Had I known I'd never see him again, I would have given him a hug and said our goodbyes," Dave says.
A NEED FOR ANSWERS
Soldiers were going to Vietnam in slews by then, Dorothy says. She remembers James' last year as moving fast -- enlistment, boot camp, armor school and then only two weeks at home before he was sent to Vietnam.
Three weeks later, he was dead.
"It's just indescribable," Dorothy says. "It's just something that you cannot believe has happened. I couldn't think it was true until we actually got his body back. I thought they had made a mistake.
"It totally changes life."
Sent to Vietnam about a month ahead of James, Dave didn't learn about James' death until a month or more after the funeral. "I was quite bitter for the rest of my time in Vietnam," he says. "'You're telling me that my buddy got killed?' It was a tough time, for sure."
Dorothy had questions.
"Nobody was telling us anything," she says. "We had to find things out kind of on our own."
She reached out to then-U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, who helped put her in touch with the sergeant in charge of James' unit in Vietnam. By then, the sergeant had returned to Fort Knox, Ky.
"I flew up there and met him and his family," she says. "I found out a few things that way."
Trained as a tank commander, James wasn't in charge of a tank the day he died. He was new to Vietnam and his sergeant felt that he needed more time, so James was in the gunner's position in a tank crew.
The tank was on a routine patrol. It passed unharmed over a mine, which apparently had been hidden in the road for months. Before it returned along the same road, an enemy soldier activated the mine, and it exploded when the tank rolled over it. The tank burned up.
The sergeant showed Dorothy the type of tank James was in that day and told her it was nearly impossible for the mortally-wounded James to have escaped, but he did. His body was found intact in a nearby ditch.
"Nobody knows how he got out," Dorothy says. "We thought it was a gift from God, because he let us have him back. If he had not, if Sandy had burned up in that tank ... so many people never know what ever happened to their soldier.
"I can't even understand what it would be like."
On his last trip to Greenland, James had stopped in on Dave's parents. "He told them that he did not think he was coming back, and he set his house in order," Dave says.
James also stopped by to see Wayne and sold him his guitar for $5. Wayne still has it, along with one letter James sent him from Vietnam.
"For so long it was like I could hear his voice," Dorothy says. "I could remember the sound of ... when he would call my name. It was as though he was coming down the hall, like he was there at home. I don't know exactly when that went away.
"I thought I could not bear it."
Dorothy and George had four children at home and had to move forward, but it wasn't easy.
"I just did what they needed," she says. "We went on with our life, but it wasn't for me anymore. I'm sure that's the way it is for anyone who has a death or sudden removal of someone from the family. It changes everybody's life."
THEY WILL NEVER FORGET
James now rests beside his father, who died in 2004. Dave "looks in" on his friend from time to time. So does Wayne.
On Veterans Days, Dorothy and her grandkids, one a former Marine, go to the cemetery. "We spend a little time down there and take the kids," she says.
Dave has traveled to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington and has touched James' name.
Wayne and Dorothy have visited The Moving Wall, a replica of the D.C. one that travels around the country. They haven't seen the big wall, but they have rubbings from it. Wayne's was made by his youngest son, who is named for James.
Someone sent one to Dorothy. It's behind a plastic page protector in her scrapbook.
From the scrapbook, Dorothy pulls a now-yellowing and fragile crayon drawing that James drew as a young child and mailed to his grandparents. She unfolds it on her table to show a visitor.
"He was our oldest," she says quietly.
Also carefully preserved in the scrapbook is a letter James sent his grandmother from Vietnam. It's the only letter from James that Dorothy has. The two he mailed her and George disappeared at his funeral.
She wishes she had them back.
Dave regrets that he wasn't in James' unit. He says he feels like if he had been there, he might have been able to help.
"I lost a good friend," he says. "I think about him and the loss to his family. How unfair that war was and the waste."
He finds himself quietly reflecting on his friend, particularly when he looks at his own grandchildren.
"I think how nice it would be if James were here."
Dorothy Ledbetter’s bulging scrapbook on James includes newspaper clippings, letters, photos of him and his friends, and a rubbing of James’ name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.
Among items displayed in a case in the Greenland High School gym lobby is James Ledbetter’s football jersey, photos of his 1967 teammates and the team’s district championship trophy.
In Dorothy Ledbetter’s scrapbook are photos of her son with his Little League friends and later with his Army buddies.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Virtual Wall at VirtualWall.org provides online photos, service details and remembrances for veterans killed in action in Vietnam — including 598 Arkansans.
The Butler Center’s “Arkansas Vietnam War Project” contains archival materials from and about Arkansas veterans. More information about it is available at butlercenter. org.
Metro on 11/11/2017
Print Headline: Vietnam took him at 20 years