FAIRFIELD — Six months into his first tour in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Lanny French got his draft notice.
“It really cracked the guys up,” French said.
It makes the retired Solano County sheriff’s deputy smile, since he joined the Army in 1967 “because I didn’t want to be drafted.”
Born in Torrance and a 1967 Chico State University graduate, French signed up to be an airborne ranger and got hooked up with the 173rd “because I knew a little bit about it and I knew it was an elite unit.”
French arrived in Vietnam through Ben Hoa on Oct. 10, 1967, a little over two years after the 173rd became the first major Army combat unit to deploy to the Southeast Asian country.
“Gen. (William) Westmoreland called us his fire brigade. We fought in every area but the (Mekong) delta,” French said.
He started out as a replacement, serving as an ammunition bearer for a M-60 machine-gun team. It was also the time when the 173rd got involved in a series of fierce battles against the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong in the Central Highlands around Dak To.
French’s unit, C Company, 2nd Batt., 503rd Infantry, was sent into the fight for Hill 875 in November 1967, which the NVA had spent considerable time fortifying.
It was French’s first fight and he spent four days assaulting NVA trench lines in the battle that cost the 173rd one-fourth of its strength. On the fourth day, French’s luck ran out and he took an AK-47 round through the left leg.
He also still carries a small piece of shrapnel in his cheek from the bomb dropped by the Marine aircraft that wounded him and killed several other 173rd soldiers.
“I was scared, but I did my job. It was bad times, very bad times,” French said.
After a stint recovering in a hospital in Qui Nhon, French checked himself out and hitchhiked back to the 173rd in time for the January 1968 Tet Offensive, which had French in Kontum defending a district headquarters from being overrun by the Viet Cong.
He extended his tour twice. He first got reassigned to the 74th Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol detachment and then to the 173rd’s Ranger company.
When French wrote home asking his family to send clothing to help cloth Vietnamese refugees, the request got in the newspaper and French got a call from his sergeant demanding he get rid of the 800 pounds of clothing that showed up at the unit.
French and a couple of his friends drove all the clothing to a nearby bridge, where they spent the day handing it out to any Vietnamese that crossed the bridge.
He wryly notes that the bridge had been a favorite target for VC mortar teams, but after the big clothing giveaway, the bridge ceased getting mortared.
Later, French’s outfit was equipped first with armed jeeps and then with heavier vehicles in the form of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers. French said riding on them sure beat “humping it around.” They also received Sheridan tanks, which French called “a piece of junk.”
French said the unit used its considerable firepower conducting sweeps, convoy duty and search-and-destroy missions wherever they were needed.
Most of the time, the VC and NVA didn’t engage the soldiers, but when they did, “we did a pretty good number on them.”
One of the roadside ambushes was sprung on French when they were on their way to a Bob Hope show. An AK-47 round shattered the camera that French had strapped across his chest before the 173rd soldiers fought the VC ambushers off.
“I really liked that camera,” French said.
One of French’s more unusual mementoes from that time is a British Webley revolver he took off a 40-year-old NVA officer named Vo Sach, who French and the 173rd soldiers captured.
On taking the grip off the revolver later, French found a rolled up Chieu Hoi pamphlet, which were dropped in great numbers all over Vietnam to convince VC and NVA to surrender.
“It seemed he (the NVA officer) was covering his bets,” French said.
French wrapped up his time in Vietnam in March 1970 as a sergeant, coming back through McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and switching to the Ready Reserve for three years before completely hanging up his uniform.
He spent the next year working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection fighting fire in a helitack crew all over Northern California.
French then was hired by former Solano County Sheriff Al Cardoza as a deputy sheriff, where he served for 25 years before retiring.
“I was a very lucky man to be assigned to the 173rd,” said French.
He also recently revisited where he served in Vietnam, which he described as “a very beautiful country without the wars and I liked the people.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com.ithompsondr.