|Name:||Thomas Isaac "Tommy" Ledbetter|
5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces
Suoi Da Special Forces Camp, South Vietnam
|Date of Birth:||26 May 1936 (Bainbridge, GA)|
|Home of Record:||Tampa, FL|
|Date of Loss:||19 June 1964|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam|
1061041E ( XT325635)
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Killed/Body Not Recovered|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||James L. Talley (Missing); Sgt. Harry A. Walling (remains recovered)|
REMARKS: MIA IN GRND FIGHT ON PATROL - J
SYNOPSIS: On 17 June 1964, Capt. Thomas I. "Tommy" Ledbetter, senior advisor and commanding officer of a Montagnard Strike Force; Sgt. Harry Walling, senior NCO advisor; and then Spec. James L. "Jim" Talley, radio operator; accompanied a 103-man Strike Force Company consisting of three platoons that departed the Suoi Da Special Forces Camp located at Polei Krong to conduct a two-day search and destroy mission against Viet Cong (VC) positions in the populated and hotly contested region northeast of the city of Tay Ninh, Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam.
The area in which the patrol was operating at the time it was ambushed was approximately 2 miles east of Highway 4, the same distances northeast of Nui Ba Den Mountain, 7 miles northeast of the provisional capital of Tay Ninh, 21 miles due east of the South Vietnamese/Cambodian border and 49 miles northwest of Saigon.
As the Strike Force moved through their area of operation on the northeast edge of Nui Ba Den Mountain, also known as Black Virgin Mountain, Spec. Talley and the 1st platoon found and attacked enemy security positions. During the brief firefight, they also captured 4 VC prisoners. The lead platoon stopped to reorganize and deal with their captives as they waited for the remainder of the force to join them.
Meanwhile as the 2nd and 3rd platoons advanced toward the lead element, they entered a field from the edge of the jungle. Capt. Ledbetter and Sgt. Walling scanned the area laid out before them for signs of enemy activity. Seeing none, Capt. Ledbetter gave the command for his men to fan out and proceed across the open field covered in elephant grass. As the Strike Force moved forward, a well-concealed and entrenched VC force opened fire from a wood line with intense and accurate automatic weapons fire. Immediately Capt. Ledbetter, Sgt. Walling and their troops took cover in what little concealment was available to them. After directing the redeployment of the 1st platoon to meet the new threat, the entire patrol came under heavy automatic weapon and recoilless rifle fire of an estimated VC battalion positioned to the south, east and north of them.
Although Jim Talley could have remained in the 1st platoon's position, he rushed to the aid of his commanding officer. Capt. Ledbetter directed Spec. Talley to establish radio contact with the Suoi Da Special Forces Camp and to apprise them that the patrol had walked into a Viet Cong battalion approximately 300 to 400 men strong. The radio operator also requested immediate air support and extraction, but was not able to give them the patrol's exact location before an enemy bullet destroyed his radio. Immediately an air support mission was initiated, but none of the aircrews were able to locate the area of the battle based on the scanty information provided them.
In spite of the overwhelming volume of heavy small arms and automatic weapons fire, the three American advisors continued to rally their indigenous troops and afford them an opportunity to redeploy to a more tenable position while providing as much covering fire as possible.
Capt. Ledbetter, who was at the apex of the assault that came in human waves, returned fire with an M79 grenade launcher. Spec. Talley continued to protect his commander from enemy counterattacks by inflicting as many casualties as possible with his rifle until he ran out of ammunition and was overcome by the enemy. As the survivors withdrew, Harry Walling was struck by VC gunfire. Moments later the third VC wave broke through the perimeter and Sgt. Walling's position was overrun. Surviving members of the Strike Force began to escape and evade the onrushing VC.
The next day a reinforced company was preparing to leave Suoi Da to search for the missing members of the Strike Force Company when 26 survivors, mostly wounded, began to make their way into camp. They gave a grim description of what had occurred during and after the battle. According to the survivors, Capt. Ledbetter had been shot in the leg, stabbed and hit in the head. When last seen after the company was entirely overrun, he was attempting to crawl away. Some of the survivors reported they had hidden in the brush pretending to be dead and observed the VC burying bodies. They also watched as the communists set up an ambush for US search parties they knew would come. Some reported they saw Spec. Talley and Capt. Ledbetter after capture being carried away into the jungle by the Viet Cong.
A full-scale search and rescue (SAR) mission was initiated using a variety of air assets including at least a dozen armed Huey helicopters, ground troops and armored personnel carriers. The formal search for Tommy Ledbetter, Jim Talley and Harry Walling continued for over a week. Each day SAR personnel encountered enemy ground fire and engaged in firefights, both on the ground and in the air.
The search effort was also complicated by the fact that the Montagnards were unfamiliar with the area and frequently became confused about the locations of the extended battle sites. In spite of the confusion, 86 newly dug graves were found in and around the ambush site, and members of the search element opened many of them. During the examination of graves, one containing the body of Harry Walling was found. Shortly thereafter it was evacuated to a US mortuary for positive identification before being returned to his family for burial. While conducting the ground search, no trace of Tommy Ledbetter, Jim Talley or any of their equipment was found in or around the area. At the time the formal search was terminated, both men were reported as Missing in Action.
The SAR team felt at the time that Tommy Ledbetter and Jim Talley had been captured. Further they reasoned that because Spec. Talley had medical experience with his secondary MOS as a combat medic; he would have made a valuable prisoner for the Viet Cong who were frequently unable to adequately treat their own wounded.
One week after loss, a newspaper article appeared in the 26 June 1964 issue of the Saigon Post reguarding this loss incident. In article the reporter documented the extensive search operation for the 3 American advisors and 47 Montagnards who were lost during this battle. The article went on to state that under interrogation captured Viet Cong soldiers revealed that Sgt. Walling was killed during combat and that Capt. Ledbetter and Spec. Talley were also killed, but gave no further details beyond the fact that they had been captured, led off into the jungle and executed.
A military Board of Inquiry was called to examine the fate of Capt. Ledbetter and Spec. Talley. After reviewing all the witness statements and intelligence reports, the Board determined that both men died during or shortly after loss and downgraded each man's status from Missing in Action to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
There is no question both Tommy Ledbetter and Jim Talley were wounded during this battle. In spite of the US Army's decision to declare them as Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered, there is little doubt that the VC captured them and carried them off the field of battle. If they died from their wounds or were executed as indicated by the captured VC, each man has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if they survived, these highly trained and experienced soldiers' fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way there is no doubt the Vietnamese know the answers and could return them or their remains any time they had the desire to do so.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.