ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a bright March morning in 1944, a stricken U.S. bomber returning from a thwarted mission over Germany took another enemy hit and crashed in a tiny French village.
Two members of the 10-man crew were killed, the rest injured; including the 20-yearold pilot, Lt. Edwin Ledbetter.
Fast forward 69 years, and Ledbetter’s wartime service in France has earned him the country’s highest decoration, the Légion d’honneur, or Legion of Honor.
Ledbetter learned in June that French President Francois Hollande had appointed him as a “Chevalier,” or Knight of the Legion of Honor, by decree.
“The French people will never forget your courage and your devotion to the great cause of freedom,” reads the letter Ledbetter received from French Ambassador Francois Delattre, informing him of the award.
He received the medal from the French consul general in San Francisco, Romain Serman, on Oct. 23, surrounded by his wife, Beverly LaVigne Ledbetter, three children and four grandchildren.
The Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Originally recognizing military or civil service by the French, it has been expanded to honor contributions by non-French people, including soldiers who risked their lives to help liberate France during World War II.
In an interview this week at his Placitas home, Ledbetter, who grew up in Conroy, Ark., said it was the year before the attack on Pearl Harbor when he lied about his age to join a National Guard infantry unit.
“I didn’t like sleeping on the ground so I got a transfer into what was then called the Army Air Corps,” Ledbetter said.
His training took him to Roswell, where he developed an enduring love for New Mexico and qualified to pilot the B-17 heavy bomber, known as the “Flying Fortress.”
Transferred to Grafton Underwood in England, Ledbetter flew three missions unscathed. On his fourth, a bombing run bound for a Messerschmitt aircraft factory near Augsburg, Germany, the plane took heavy flak. Ledbetter turned around and tried to make it back to base but the aircraft was hit again and crashed in the village of L’Huitre in the Champagne region of northeastern France.
Ledbetter suffered a broken arm, dislocated shoulder and facial injury.
“I thought I’d lose my eye,” Ledbetter said.
He spent nearly six months in a German-occupied hospital in Reims where he was well treated. Ledbetter said he stole German magazines and had a fellow POW translate them. That was how they learned of the Allied forces’ invasion of Normandy.
He and other prisoners of war were liberated by elements of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.
“And that was the end of our war,” Ledbetter said. Laughing, he added that they had access to “all kinds of champagne and we were all drinking heavily.”
U.S. troops loaded the prisoners onto jeeps and took them to a busy American-run hospital near Paris.
“It was right out of M*A*S*H,” said Ledbetter, referring to the TV comedy based on a Korean War medical unit.
Ledbetter hitched a ride on a military plane to England and while there witnessed the armada of planes bound for the unsuccessful attack on Holland in September 1944 that was made famous in the film “A Bridge Too Far.”
On his flight home, Ledbetter recalls stopping in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he was able to drink fresh milk.
‘I hadn’t had that in a long time,” he said.
After the war, Ledbetter used the GI Bill to earn a degree and later went to Harvard Law School. He worked for a law firm in Los Angeles but didn’t like it and later entered the Foreign Service.
His diplomatic career took him to Germany, Ecuador, Greece, Cyprus, Honduras, Panama and Brazil.
Ledbetter and a surviving crew member returned to L’Huitre in 1997 where village residents showed them a piece salvaged from his B-17 that they had kept all those years.
They expected the Americans to come back looking for it, Beverly Ledbetter said, “They asked us ‘What took you so long?’”
COURTESY OF BEVERLY LEDBETTER World War II veteran Edwin Ledbetter of Placitas, wearing the French Legion of Honor medal, and French consul general Romain Sermain, in San Francisco.
The Légion d’honneur, or Legion of Honor, medal awarded to Edwin Ledbetter of Placitas. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon in 1802 to recognize services rendered to France.
COURTESY OF BEVERLY LEDBETTER Residents of the village of L’Huitre in northeastern France erected this monument to honor the U.S. airmen whose aircraft, including Edwin Ledbetter’s B-17, crashed in their region during World War II.