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104-year-old Harrisburg veteran recalls war, experiences

  • Gilbert Ledbetter, a resident of Saline Care Center in Harrisburg, remembers the difficulties endured during World War II.

    Gilbert Ledbetter, a resident of Saline Care Center in Harrisburg, remembers the difficulties endured during World War II.
    Courtesy of TAMMY SMITH

  • Gilbert Ledbetter, center, gets a visit from a group of schoolchildren who sing "God Bless the USA."

    Gilbert Ledbetter, center, gets a visit from a group of schoolchildren who sing "God Bless the USA."
    Courtesy of TAMMY SMITH

  • Gilbert Ledbetter, right, visits with his sister Alene Walter.

    Gilbert Ledbetter, right, visits with his sister Alene Walter.
    Courtesy of TAMMY SMITH

  • Gilbert Ledbetter today, and as a young Merchant Marine.

    Gilbert Ledbetter today, and as a young Merchant Marine.
    Courtesy of the LEDBETTER FAMILY

 
By Brett Pinkerton
Contributing Writer
updated: 5/31/2018 4:39 PM

One of the most prized videos saved on Tammy Smith's phone is the 90 seconds that captures more than 50 third-graders standing and singing "God Bless The USA."

At the center of this collage of young bodies is an older man, chair-bound and grinning. Atop his head, a black baseball cap with the U.S. Merchant Marines Veteran logo. On either side of him, the children finish the song.

"Watch this," Smith says.

The final note, and then the man center raises his hands in genial, familiar applause.

The man clapping is William Gilbert Ledbetter. He is, as his cap suggests, a former Merchant Marine in the United States Army; and at 104 years old, one of Harrisburg's oldest residents.

Flanked by Smith, activity director at Ledbetter's residence Saline Care, and activity assistant Janice Oldham, Ledbetter seems to find the questions and intrigue regarding his life story all too familiar. But at the gentle urging of Oldham, Ledbetter's mind becomes awash with the stories of his past.

Born in Hardin County on Nov. 3, 1913, Ledbetter was the fifth of eight siblings. He is currently Harrisburg High School's oldest living alumnus, graduating in 1932.

Encouraged by his family, the young Ledbetter enlisted in the Merchant Marines where he would serve from 1942 to 1946. His enlistment would take him around the world, witnessing, as Ledbetter describes it, the "unpleasant" catastrophic changes World War II would bring.

"I was curious to learn the way that people lived," Ledbetter says. "I was curious to learn."

Learning is a recurring motif for Ledbetter.

"It was a process," Ledbetter says of being in the service. "We lived together like a big family."

During World War II, Merchant Marines trafficked weaponry and other goods to the United States Army, a pivotal role that, until recently, had gone largely underappreciated.

In 2017, the Department of Defense bestowed five medals on Ledbetter -- the European Campaign Medal, the Victory Medal, the Pacific Campaign Medal, the Mediterranean Campaign Medal and the Maritime Honor Medal.

"Proud. Top proud," Ledbetter says of his reaction to getting the medals.

He tells no wartime anecdotes, preferring to think of that time in the abstract.

"It was good and bad," Ledbetter says. "You were treated well. You had employment. You knew a lot of things." But Ledbetter forewarns those who are eager to see America engage in more conflict.

"I would tell our country to be slow getting into war," Ledbetter said. "A man could lose his life."

"Who said war is hell?" Ledbetter asks, quoting Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. "I believe it is. War is hell."

Ledbetter left the service after which he came home to the Midwest, running a farm in Missouri before working for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail sorter and eventually retiring in Harrisburg.

"I felt better at home with relatives," Ledbetter said. "There's no place like home."

A strong morality

Stephen Ledbetter is Gilbert's only son, adopted by Ledbetter and his wife. At 68, Stephen retains the deep regard he's had for his father his whole life.

"My dad was a worker," Stephen says. "He was a hardworking guy."

Stephen says the persona of fairness and balance his dad showed to the world was what they saw at home, too.

"What you saw was what you got," Stephen said. "He had a purpose."

Stephen and his family are taking care of Gilbert in his advanced age, and it gives Stephen cause to reflect on the strong morality 68 years with his father have instilled in him.

"He has no idea how many times he kept me out of trouble and he wasn't even there," Stephen said.

"Thank you for showing me what being a real man is all about," he adds. "I consider it an honor."

Others in Ledbetter's orbit are grateful for his presence, too. Smith and Oldham regard their time with him as a genuinely reaffirming experience, a reminder of why it is they do what they do.

Oldham has know him for 30 years. "We become their family," Oldham says.

She and Smith believe the secret to Ledbetter's longevity is activity. And positivity.

"He's always had a positive outlook on life," Oldham said.

Both Oldham and Smith stress the importance of listening to what their residents have to say.

"Always take the time to listen," Oldham advises anyone caring for elderly people.

"Be a good listener," Smith adds. "Be caring. Take the time to let them talk. Taking the time to hear them and letting them know that you care for them means a lot to them."

Ledbetter's sister, Alene Walter, is also another resident of the Saline Care Center. She has Alzheimer's, but the siblings have a daily reunion in the common area of the facility. Smith captures it all on her phone, one of the moments she and Oldham live for.

Those, and a familiar tune sung by Ledbetter at various intervals, after countless requests. It's a song Ledbetter has carried with him throughout his life, beginning as a ditty sung during his time in the service.

"What's your favorite song, Gilbert?" Smith asks.

Ledbetter pauses. Then begins. First a hum, then the words:

"Oh when the saints go marching in, oh when the saints go marching in," Ledbetter sings. "Oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in."