Memories of Ken Salvi
Profilers: Ashley Modena, Andrew Sung, Jacob Silvera
What made you decide to join the military?
Like I said in the paper, we had the draft. If you weren’t a student, you were eligible to go in depending on your physical health. If you just got out of high school and went to work. You had 10 days after you turned 18 to go to the draft or fill out draft board card. And that made you eligible along with everybody else. So, if you weren’t a student, you were either going to get
drafted or you could enlist in one of the other services. They sent me a letter telling me to go to the draft board. They sent us to Oakland to go take a physical. Then they put me on some kind of a list and in between the time that I got my draft notice. I had enlisted in the Army for three years. Difference between the draft and enlisting is the army told you what you were going to do. If you enlisted, you decided what you wanted to do: you could be a cook, you could be a mechanic, you could drive a tank. If you joined the Navy, you had different skills than in the Air
Force or in the Marines.
What was it like facing the draft? Growing up then in high school what was it like facing the draft?
Well, in in high school, you think, well, I’m going to go to a JC, and I won’t have to worry about it. Well, I got to a JC and I didn’t much care for it, so I wanted to go to work. But I mean, even when I was over there, I had five friends from high school and a cousin over there. So, everybody was in the same boat that I was for the most part.
What was the reaction of your family and friends when you decided to enlist in the war? Were they mostly supportive or how did they feel?
They were worried, of course. It was kind of a strange situation because very few people could Vietnam on a map at that time. Everybody was concerned, and you saw it on the news, and you could see the battles and whatnot. You got the reports of the people that had died. Not everybody that was in the service went over there, but if you went over there, everybody was concerned because, you didn’t know what you’re going to do, you didn’t know where you’re going to do it, and you just knew it was luck of the draw for a lot of places.
So, most people were concerned, but were any of them like treating you differently because you decided to go to war or like what? Did you have any people who were like super anti-war and were not supportive at all of what you were doing?
Not people that I knew. I didn’t run into any of that kind of stuff until I came home. I remember coming down the elevator at the San Francisco airport, not the elevator the escalator, and there I was coming down and it was a guy on the other side going up and he called me something and spit at me. I just told him you haven’t got the guts to come down here, just keep on running. But that’s the only time it ever got personal for me. I just left the place and gotten home.
You talked about how you enlisted instead of being drafted, what was your job? What did you enlist as?
What I originally signed up to be is a combat engineer. I thought I’d be driving road graders or backhoes and stuff like that and doing that kind of stuff. But when I finish what they call AIT (advanced individual training) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I got my orders to go to 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam straight out. There was only two of us in the company that got that same order, the guy that I enlisted with and myself. When I called home, I found out that my mother had just been put in the hospital. They were only giving her a couple of months to live. Between her doctors and a local congressman, they got my orders changed to go to the Presidio
because I was going to be there for a year, and she wouldn’t be alive when I came back. I couldn’t go to a funeral there, they weren’t going to let me out for that. So, they sent me to the Presidio in San Francisco. She was in HSF.
So, you were able to visit her, right?
Luckily, the Presidio is about a mile away from where the hospital was, so I could go there almost any time I wanted.
What was a day in your life like? I know that you were at multiple bases, so what was it like on a day-to-day kind of routine? What was your life like in training in general?
After I got to the Presidio, they changed my MOS. They didn’t have any use for a combat engineer at the Presidio. They just found a job for me and I happened to be working in what they call the message center. And I became a printer. So, that changed my whole Army career at that point.
What did a printer do?
I ran a mimeograph machine and we printed orders, promotions, people getting transferred, daily orders, things like that.
Was it like a Xerox machine?
Yeah, it’s kind of like a Xerox machine now. Some clerk had to type out everything on a stencil and then I ran off with how ever many orders they wanted and then I returned them. That was the majority of my job. I delivered most of the stuff to.
Did you go to the Presidio before Vietnam or after?
Yeah, I went there first.
And then what happened that made you go to Vietnam?
After my mother passed away, it was about four months later I got my orders to go there as a combat engineer. When I got over there, the guy that had been the messenger clerk had about six days left and they said, “hey, do you want to stay here and be the messenger clerk?” This is better than the other option. So, yeah, that’s what I did.
In Vietnam you were mostly like a clerk. So, did you do anything other than that? I know that you moved from one place in Vietnam to another. Why did you move to those two different places?
Well, it wasn’t my decision. The war moved around, there were different battles in different places and there were different places that are considered safe and there were places that weren’t. There were places they wanted to expand to and make a strong hold at. and when I was in Qui
Nhoh, the CEO called us out one night into formation and said “We’re moving, pack everything. If it ain’t nailed down, we’re taking it.” So, that’s what we did. We packed for about a week. He said, “I’m not telling you where we’re going. You’re not allowed to write letters home because
nobody is supposed to know where we’re going.” So, we got into trucks one day and made about an eight-hour drive. We had no idea except for the top brass. After about eight hours, we pull up to this vacant field, there’s nothing around. It’s just a dirt road and they said, “welcome home.”
This was in Pleiku. It was about 80 miles inland from the coast, what they call the Central Islands.
So, was this like the closest you felt to being in danger? Or is there like a different time where you felt like this is kind of getting a little crazy?
This was like you’re playing a real soldier at the time, before I felt more like a clerk. When we got there, you got clerks working and we had to build a base. You started off and you started building stuff. We lived in pup tents, two person tents for I don’t know, about a week. Before we built our own stuff. We lived in tents, like I said in the paper, the tents look like the ones in
MASH. That’s how we lived. There was something being built every day.
Yeah, I can imagine it sounds very intense to move so quickly like that.
Did you have any other family members or friends from school or anyone that you knew who was fighting with you or was in Vietnam with you?
Yeah, like I said, I had five guys from high school and a cousin from Colorado. In fact, when I first got there, he wanted me to come down. You could have one in country, three-day pass, and it just happened to fall in the time that we were packing up and moving. So, I couldn’t go down there. But he had been there long enough to know he was doing. I had other guys that I knew from school were there. I had one on the other side of Pleiku in the same unit, but he was in another company on the other side of Pleiku. I got together with him one time.
While you were over there, what was like the general consensus about the war in Vietnam? Did you have any clue what was going on at home, like with the protests or anything? Or was it like very much so, like in the war, like you weren’t thinking about anything at home?
We didn’t have any way of communicating with back home, except for writing letters. We didn’t have TV, we didn’t have movies or anything that showed us what was going on. Basically, the information we had came from the army. We had no news. The news people would come with their cameras recording the war and on different things, but, you know, we never saw them.
Did you ever see any of these journalists coming or did any journalist ever approach your company or anything like that?
Not that I knew.
After you were done with your term in the military, what was it like returning back home?
I think people in the town I lived in pretty much support what was going on over there. Remember, this was earlier in the war. The war ended in 73, but the late 60s and early 70s is when the protests were. They were more organized and a lot higher numbers that did the protests But I had never seen anything till I came back saw it on TV. The ones in San Francisco or New York or wherever.
When you were applying for jobs after the war, did you feel like there was some sort of bias or anything against you? Did you feel like you were treated just like everybody else?
When I when I got out of the Army, I went back to work at Chevron, so there was no question about that. But when I started applying a different jobs, most of the older guys were doing the hiring, had been in the military for 20 or 30 years ago. So, they supported anybody and had been in it. The difference was if I was looking for a job before I went into the military the first question they would ask is have you been in the military because they knew that if you worked there for a while, you were going to be gone. Yeah, Uncle Sam would come to get you. So, they didn’t want to hire in the first place.
Prior to enlisting, you were already employed by Chevron?
What do you think in retrospect, was the best part about being in the military? Did you think that you gained something out of that experience?
It forces you to grow up, for one thing, because if you don’t like it, you don’t get to walk away and go see Mommy. Because there will be an MP right behind you that’s taking you away to jail. But you had to grow up because there was nobody there that was going to hold your hand. You
were pretty much on your own. You were part of a squad, you’re part of a company. There was nobody holding your hand and telling you what you should do. You got instructions and that was it.
Are you still close with any of your fellow soldiers or any of your friends in the war?
I don’t keep trying to keep track of them. There’s probably only two or three people that I even remember their names. The only ones that I stay in contact with would be my cousin or a couple of guys from high school that I was over there with.
How did going to the war impacted the way you thought about it? Did you have an opinion and then coming out thinking something different? What was the progression of your opinion of the war?
Well, I didn’t really have a strong opinion about it. But while I was in the service and got over there, I saw how poor they were and how hard they worked and they can lose it. The Viet Cong would come to the villages and they would take the sons or the young males and put them into their arm on the northern side. A lot of places didn’t have protection. We felt like we were protecting the Vietnamese over there.
Did you ever get to encounter with the Vietnamese people, like firsthand and like help them? Get them supplies or things like that?
We had a charity in our company that we sponsored an orphanage. So, every payday, if they asked for donations to help support these kids that had to have to be in the orphanage. Sometimes people sent over stuff to us to help. Clothes and things like that. We did have a couple of inmates
working for us at our compound. They had an interpreter for them. I up I ended up giving us San Jose State sweatshirt to them that my brother sent to me. He went to San Jose State. When I left, I gave it to him. He was just a young guy, but he knew two languages and can make a living.
I was wondering what was it like dealing with so much loss at the time? Because I’m sure that you had like friends that went to war in Vietnam and didn’t come back. So what was that like for you?
As far as I know, I didn’t know anybody that died. In the past, the only kid that I knew that had died over there was two or three years younger than myself. So, I knew him, but I didn’t really know him. We weren’t friends or anything, I just knew who he was. He’s the only one that I knew. I will tell you that the war got real for me when I was at the Presidio and one of our duties was burial duty. The Presidio had its own cemetery and one day they took us out there in full dress uniform. I was a pallbearer. I lowered the casket into the grave. They fired a three gun salute and they had a lieutenant. If you had military funerals, you have the flag over the coffin that gets folded up and he presents it to the mother or the wife or whatever. We buried 15/16 guys that one day. That’s when the war got real, real. You see people I mean, they were very kids that had died over there and they were the same age I was, if not a younger. They took us around on the cemetery in a bus, we went from one funeral to the next. And that got real, real. Because you say I’m in the army, I could go there, I could come back like they did. That made you take a second thought and say “Holy smokes, this is real.” This is not something I’m watching on TV. That’s not something I read about. This is real. That never left while I was over there. I knew it could get real no matter what I thought was a safe area or safe job. It wouldn’t take a whole lot more than if I got to see somebody die from military, from the war.
You were at the Presidio and you were in that role. So how do you think that having that background, how did you feel going to Vietnam? Was it like really nerve wracking?
I can’t say I ever got scared, apprehensive as hell, yeah. Wondering what’s happening and what am I going to end up doing and how am I going to come out of this whole thing? When I went over there, I thought I was going to be a combat engineer again. Like in the paper I wrote, we flew over in a
commercial plane for GI’s. And for 16 hours, you didn’t hear people talking too much. Everybody was thinking about how am I coming back? I am going to be happy as a clam, but or messed up.
What was that like running through your head at the time or did you feel like with the job that you were assigned, you are going to be OK?
Well, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing at the time. I was apprehensive about what I was going to be doing.
When you were going were you kind of relieved that you weren’t going to be under direct fire?
Yeah, I mean, you know, they offer you a job that’s at the headquarters, yeah, you’re going to take it because the alternative could have been a whole lot worse. You’re not crazy, so you take what looks good in front of you.
When you were over in Vietnam, I know that a lot of people encountered or not encountered. They had a lot of entertainment to entertain soldiers and things like that. Did you ever get to experience something like that?
I saw Bob Hope. I don’t know whether any of you know who he is. In the 50s and 60s, he was one of the biggest comedians around. He made movies with Ben Crosby. His goal in life was to visit troops, he would go anywhere, any time to entertain the troops. He was in Korea. He was in
Vietnam and he went to other places, too. If there are troops there, he’d go and put on a show.
Oh, cool. That’s so fun that you got to see him.
My final question is, if you could change your experience or anything that happened in Vietnam, what would you change?
The fact that my mother passed away and then I didn’t go when I was originally supposed to. Because my friend that went there, that I enlisted with, he did see combat. He got into it right away. I wasn’t with them. I always felt guilty about that, about not being there. And then at the
same time, you wonder, how you would react? Would you panic? What would you step in to do? Would you do what you’re supposed to supposed to do? What you were trained to do? Could you pull the trigger? You know something I don’t know, because I never experienced it because my
mother passed away. He was there for a year and he was involved in combat. He had kills. I’ll just put it that way, kills.
In Memory of Ken Salvi 1944-2021