Prisoners of war honored: Ledbetter didn't give up hope during 19 months as POW
By BY ERIN PRADIA - EPRADIA@VICAD.COM
Sept. 20, 2011 at 4:20 a.m.
Updated Sept. 22, 2011 at 4:22 a.m.
"I had nothing to do lately
So I started counting the barbs on the fence
I started to count the bricks in the barracks
Planks in the air shelter, etc.,
But I noticed one man - who started to count the grains of sand in the compound...
And what happened to him
shouldn't have happened to a dog.
So I gave up."
Orby Ledbetter, WWII prisoner of war for 19 months.
After storming the beaches of Salerno, Italy and fighting both day and night for five days, Sgt. Orby Ledbetter, 22, alerted his fellow soldiers of the position of enemy tanks before being taken prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was held for 19 months until the conclusion of World War II in 1945.
Ledbetter, 90, of Victoria, is one of nine former prisoners of war and five widows of former prisoners of war honored at a POW MIA dinner Tuesday night.
Ledbetter was raised by his grandparents in Breckenridge and joined the Army National Guard at 16.
"We got $12 every three months for doing drills," Ledbetter recalled. Each Guardsman was paid $1 for each of the Monday night drills. "That was a lot of money to youngsters back then," Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter was activated to full-time military service at age 19, training with other active duty soldiers at military bases across the United States.
"That is where we learned how to shoot," Ledbetter said. "April 1, 1943 they shipped us off from Fort Diggs."
Ledbetter was initially deployed to North Africa to train other armies in street fighting.
Later that year, at 3:30 a.m. Sept 9, Ledbetter was in the first wave of soldiers to hit the beaches of Salerno, Italy.
"That is when we started fighting and getting shot at. I was the first one out of the boat," Ledbetter said. "The Germans had been there waiting for us for about nine days."
The soldiers could hear the machine gun fire raining down on their boats before they even began the charge up the beach.
"We lost a lot of men that day," Ledbetter said.
By 6 p.m., only 10 of the 39 men Ledbetter stormed the beach with were still alive.
Ledbetter fought for five days straight before being taken prisoner.
The prisoners were transported in box cars to a prison camp in Munich.
"There was standing room only in the box cars," Ledbetter said. "We were transported for five days and nights with no food."
Once in Munich, the prisoners were each given one Serb uniform. During his 19 months as a POW, Ledbetter was given one bath and two showers.
The enlisted men were sent to work on farms. Ledbetter was sent to a prison camp with officers.
Ledbetter spent his 19 months as a prisoner of war in a variety of prison camps across Germany and one in Poland.
"The beds were three deep. We slept on boards with one blanket," Ledbetter described the camp in Munich. "They brought us brown water and called it coffee."
In another prison, there were 400 men crammed in a circus tent, with one blanket per two men to share.
"We had to walk out on the ice to get water or go to the restroom," Ledbetter said. "One day, my feet actually froze to the ground."
For dinner, the prisoners were fed one cup of rutabaga soup.
"Sometimes we got two to three potatoes the size of an egg, oleo and 'strawberry jelly' made from coal," Ledbetter said.
The International Red Cross provided boxes of food once a week with Spam, corned beef, milk, sugar, coffee, cigarettes and a health bar.
"The German Red Cross was really nice to us when they could be," Ledbetter said. "The Russians said that is the best thing the U.S. ever sent over - Spam."
In the almost two years Ledbetter spent as a prisoner of war, he said 25,000 men starved to death. Ledbetter was reduced to 98 pounds by the time he was released in 1945.
When Ledbetter was bored, he drew cartoons and wrote poems in a blank book given to each of the soldiers by the YMCA. He also was allowed to write one letter and two post cards each month.
"I got 37 letters back and three packages," Ledbetter said.
But in spite of the harsh conditions, Ledbetter held to the hope that he would live to be released.
"We knew we were going to get out of there, we just didn't know when," Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter was honorably discharged from active duty service on Sept. 29, 1945.