Stories of Honor Week #3: William Gilbert Ledbetter (MERCHANT MARINES )

By Harris, Joe | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

Stories of Honor Week #3: William Gilbert Ledbetter (MERCHANT MARINES )


Harris, Joe, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


William Gilbert Ledbetter has seen and experienced a lot in his 102 years, but serving his country in World War II is No. 1 on the list. "When I look back on it, it's the highest watermark of my life," Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter served as a cook in the Merchant Marines from 1942 to 1946. "I was working in a defense plant and the draft board sent for me," Ledbetter said. "I got down there and they wanted to put me in the infantry and I didn't like that and one of them sided with me and told me about the Merchant Marines. They said join the Merchant Marines that way you'd be home every month or two. And I liked that."

What the draft board didn't tell Ledbetter was the danger. The Merchant Marines suffered the highest casualty rate in WWII, with one in 26 dying according to www.usmm.org. The next closest branch is the Marines at one in 34, followed by the Army at one in 48. The average casualty rate for WWII was one in 56.

Ledbetter remembers one harrowing trip through the Strait of Gibraltar. "We were coming home on the last trip and we were convoying six following each other," Ledbetter said. "We got about two miles out and the ship next to us got hit by a torpedo. He didn't sink, he just turned back around."

The danger was constant, but the sailors didn't dwell on it. "We never knew it," Ledbetter said. "You might not know. They'd shoot a torpedo at you and it'd miss you and you'd never know. "We didn't even discuss it. We just knew it was there."

The United States' success in WWII hinged on merchant shipping. The Merchant Marines delivered troops, ammunition, food, tanks, winter supplies, bombs, airplanes, fuel, raw materials anything needed for the war effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other military leaders praised the Merchant Marines, calling them "The Fourth Arm of Defense."

Despite that praise, and the bravery displayed by the sailors, the Merchant Marines have never gotten the official recognition they deserved.

Since the Merchant Marines are the civilian-run cargo arm of the U.S. war machine, there were no welcome home parades or medals for the soldiers. It wasn't until a chance phone conversation with a fellow Merchant Marine in California that Ledbetter found out he was eligible to receive the medals he earned. Last year, after petitioning the Department of Defense, Ledbetter received the Victory Medal, the European Campaign Medal, the Mediterranean Campaign Medal, the Pacific Campaign Medal and the Maritime Honor Medal. "It was a mixed bag of emotions," said Ledbetter's son Stephen. "I was very proud that he got them, but my other thought was if that guy in California had never asked if he got his medals, then he might not have ever received them. …

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