John Erby, who died too early in 2008, was one of Vietnam Veterans of America’s most accomplished members—before, during, and after his service in the Vietnam War. As his wife Delores J. Erby notes in Caught Off Guard: A Memoir of 1st Lieutenant John W. Erby (108 pp., $18, paper), her loving tribute to her husband, Erby was a star football player in college, an exemplary infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, a loving husband and father, an award-winning account executive with Levi-Strauss, and a dedicated veterans advocate who served as president of VVA Chapter 10 in Cincinnati from 2003 until his death.
Born in Arkansas in 1940, John Erby grew up in Fresno, California. He played baseball and football at Washington Union High School in Fresno. After a year at Bakersfield Junior College, Erby transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959 on a football scholarship. He soon became an all-conference guard. As one newspaper put it, “At 190 [pounds] he’s a little small, but makes up for it with an abundance of lateral speed, top-flight coordination, and great heart.”
Erby was drafted into the Army in February of 1964. “He could have requested a student deferment or specified that he was his father’s only living child,” Delores Erby notes. “But he didn’t. Instead, he freely accepted his obligation. ‘If you’re fortunate enough to live in this country,’ he declared many years later, ‘you should be willing to die for it.'”
After basic at Fort Ord and MP advanced training at Fort Gordon, Erby was shipped to Korea and did a thirteen-month tour. John Erby then was selected for Officer Candidate School. He received his commission after being named a Distinguished OCS Graduate in March of 1967. Lt. Erby shipped out to Vietnam in July. He served as a platoon leader with Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division.
During his six months in Vietnam Lt. Erby took part in many operations in the Iron Triangle, Hobo Woods, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, and along the Cambodian border.
On January 10, 1968, Erby, who was twenty-seven years old, was blasted by a mortar round. As a result, his right leg was amputated. In typical John Erby fashion, he all but shook off losing his leg. “I feel great,” Erby told an Oakland Tribune reporter who interviewed him at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. “I don’t feel the loss of the limb will affect me in too many ways. As a matter of fact, I sort of look at it like a football player with a sprained ankle.”
In December of 1968, the disabled Vietnam veteran was hired as an assistant football coach at Cal, giving John Erby the distinction of being the first African-American coach in the then Pac Eight Conference. He gave up football coaching after five years, excelled at Levi-Strauss, then devoted huge amounts of time to serving his fellow veterans after retiring in 1997.
Delores Erby, a former Montessori School Director who had a long career with an asset management company, chronicles her husband’s life in this short, readable book. All profits from sales are being donated to VVA Chapter 10. To order, write to Erby Memoir, 10046 Indian Springs Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45241-3631 or email ErbyMemoir@gmail.com