Lanham performed more than 200 aircraft jumps
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2018, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service.
ELKINS — A 24-year United States Army veteran did three tours in Vietnam while serving his country.
Cecil Lanham, 78, enlisted in the United States Army in 1957, and retired in 1981 as a Command Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank.
On his first tour of Vietnam, which took place in 1966, he was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Division and served as a platoon sergeant.
“I was combat arms in the infantry in heavy weapons with the 173rd. I was platoon sergeant all the way through that tour,” Lanham said. “My duty was to go in the jungle and look, and you try to establish contact. As a platoon sergeant you have so many men you are responsible for, normally 30. The total is always less than that but if it’s a full compliment it is normally 30 people.”
Lanham added that during his first tour there were numerous times that his division made contact with opposing forces.
“One of the major battles for the 173rd, which is on television and everywhere else, is the battle of Dak To. I was at Dak To with them but my rotation came up before they got into that major battle,” Lanham said. “There was a lot of other conflict during that time and other little skirmishes but that was one of the major ones.”
During his second tour of Vietnam, in 1968, Lanham was part of a Battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division.
“The second time, a shortage of senior NCO’s (Non-commissioned officers) is the reason I went back with that group and they were having the Tet Offensive in Hue. They were losing a lot of folks and we went into Hue,” Lanham said. “I didn’t do a lot on that tour — we had a few skirmishes.”
Lanham’s third tour to Vietnam was after he went through the Military Advisory Training Course and he spent one year, in 1969, as the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Vietnamese.
“The third tour, I was a Lang Vei advisor. I was the operations sergeant out at Hochman and then they pulled me into district headquarters, which was Gia Dinh Province, and I was the operations sergeant there for the rest of the time,” Lanham said. “It’s in the Saigon area. Out at Hochman, at that level, I was intel there. I did intel, ran paroles and ran ambushes at night.”
Lanham said he also went with the 82nd Airborne Division into Santo Domingo in the mid-1960s during an altercation.
“I was also blessed, if you want to call it that. I went with the 82nd Airborne Division into Santo Domingo when they had that little fracas down there,” he said. “On that trip we were actually mostly a peacekeeping force. We did take some fire but it was a battle between people down there but different factions. The marines came in from the sea and we went into the airport and split the town, basically along which faction was on which side. We were peacekeeping more than anything else even though we did take some fire and got a couple people wounded.”
He also served stateside during a peacekeeping mission in Oxford, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Lanham added he was sent there when there were protests about James Meredith, an African American United States military veteran, being enrolled at Ole Miss University in 1962.
“I did a lot of peacekeeping in the early part of the ’60s. In fact, the 82nd was sent to Oxford, Mississippi, when they put Meredith in school down there,” Lanham said. “He was one of the first black individuals to go to that school so we were down there for a month. You just didn’t know where you were going to go from one day to the next. You go to work and your wife gets a call that says, ‘We can’t tell you where they’re at but they are gone.’ That happened a couple of times.”
Lanham said his time in the military taught him about leadership and working toward becoming successful.
“I went in the military when I was a 17-year-old kid, uneducated. Through the retirement process, I was able to be most successful in my career and get an education at the same time,” Lanham said. “It also taught me a lot of leadership skills and if you are faithful to yourself you will be successful. I have a wonderful family that supported me — a wife and four boys. I was away from them a lot but she did a fantastic job raising them.”
He added once he enlisted in the United States Army he grew to love it and found jumping from planes appealing.
“I actually like the Army, I enjoy it. I decided in the second eight weeks, after watching some airborne troops, that is what I wanted to be so I did that the rest of my career. I stayed on jump status,” Lanham said.
When asked why he found jumping from planes appealing, he said it was the additional money they received.
“Probably the extra $50 you received just for jumping out of an airplane,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what it was originally but then you come to enjoy it and look forward to knees in the breeze, so that makes it all good.”
During his career, Lanham performed well over 200 jumps from aircrafts, earning his master wings — given for 65 jumps — in 1965 and his century wings — given for 100 jumps — in 1966.
Lanham retired to Alaska and became commandant of the Infantry School Alaska for three years.
“I went up there as brigade operations sergeant major for the 172nd Brigade then I made Command Sergeant Major,” he explained. “They had to put me in a slot and I was commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School Alaska.”
Lanham said he created a number of friendships while in the service, many of which he is still in contact with today.
“I went to Okanawa for two years from 1960 to 1962 and I’m still in contact with a lot of those guys,” he said. “There are special people that you remember from all over that you got really close to.”
For his service, Lanham has received the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Master Parachute Badge, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60 Devices, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal with three Oak Leaf Cluster, Combat Infantryman Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Bronze Star Medal with Valor Device with two Oak Leaf Cluster, Good Conduct Medal (8), and Meritorious Service Medal.
Lanham and his late wife, Dot, also received Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Membership for their efforts in establishing a church on base at Fort Hood, Texas.
“The dedication to the church — it’s one thing that brought me home safe, I think — the dedication to the church, establishing the church and getting people headed in the right direction was special,” Lanham said.
Lanham was born and raised in High Germany until the age of 13 before moving to Mill Creek. He and his late wife Dot had four sons — Kevin, Ronald, Chris and Greg, who passed away last year.