StepUp Series: Orville Salzgeber recalls World War II service

Allison Ullmann - Staff
Spring Valley resident Orville Salzgeber shares a laugh with Nurse Manger and Assisted Living Administrator Kelly Moore, left, and Marking Coordinator Maureen Hagland. PHOTO BY ALLISON ULLMANN/THE PERRY CHIEF

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a new series the Perry Chief is producing. The series will focus on a different elder each month from the Spring Valley and main campuses of Perry Lutheran Homes. The series was prompted by the PLH StepUp campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the elderly in Perry and beyond.

Orville Salzgeber, 97, has lived a long life. And he thanks God for that.

“God’s been good to me,” the Spring Valley resident said.

Though he never anticipated he would celebrate 97 years.

“I didn’t think I’d ever last this long. But that’s life,” Salzgeber said. “We never know from the time we’re born til we die. You just don’t know, God takes care of that.”

Salzgeber was born in 1920 here in Perry. He remembers living through the Great Depression with his family. They didn’t have a lot, Salzgeber said, but his dad worked a number of odd jobs to keep food on the table. His dad worked at the railroad, cleaned wallpaper and worked as a janitor.

“It was pretty lean in those years,” Salzgeber said.

He graduated from Perry High School in 1938. His graduating class of 112 was the biggest class at that time.

After graduating, Salzgeber went to work for the Milwaukee Railroad in 1941. Then World War II happened. He was automatically deferred for six months as he was busy hauling supplies for the railroad. The single men were then drafted.

“It was a funny thing, I was drafted, but I enlisted,” Salzgeber said. “When you were drafted, it was a few months before you went in. I had some friends that were going to go in earlier, so I just went down and enlisted.”

He served in a railroad operating battalion in the United States Army. Salzgeber worked as a fireman and engineer as they hauled supplies along the railroad in the South Pacific.

“There were no battle lines. The Japanese were just all over. When you went out, you didn’t know what you were going to run into,” Salzgeber said. “The airplanes used to give us a lot of trouble, they would come down and strafe us. We got air superiority after that, so it wasn’t too bad.”

Still, he added that he couldn’t complain as he wasn’t on the front lines like others who served in World War II. Though he did end up being brought back to the United States on a stretcher.

While waiting to ship out to the United States after the war was over, his unit was staying in a big railroad terminal. The guy on the cot next to Salzgeber came down with chicken pox.

“I guess he must have came back too quick. Because we were all ready to ship out and I saw a spot on my forehead,” Salzgeber said.

His unit was one of the last ones in the South Pacific. To make the boat back to the United States, Salzgeber had to be isolated for seven days in a row.

“And we got to Seattle, and I was going to be discharged. They came and got me off the boat in a stretcher. I wasn’t even sick, I was just over the chicken pox,” Salzgeber said with a laugh.

After returning home to Perry, he went back to work on the Milwaukee Railroad. He worked for the railroad for around 40 years, until it shut down in 1980.

Salzgeber worked as an engineer. He remembers there used to be six passenger trains a day going through Perry, in addition to the freight trains.

“Perry was a railroad town, had been for 100 years til it shut down. People that live here now don’t realize,” he said.

Salzgeber married Louise in 1948 and they had three children. The pair liked to go on vacations and go fishing.

“I guess that’s about the story of my life,” Salzgeber said with a chuckle.

He then moved into the Spring Valley campus of the Perry Lutheran Homes in September of 2015.

“It’s just like having your own apartment, I really enjoy it,” Salzgeber said.