Drafted into the Vietnam war at 19 years old, Jack Compton holds onto the memories that culminated his now tenacious spirit – a characteristic that has transcended paratrooper jump school to our very own Santa Clarita Valley.
The looming nature of the draft between 1964 and 1973 was emotional for many people. From those whose heads dipped low while accepting their drafts to those who sought exemption or even served jail time to avoid service, Compton accepted his draft without much hesitation.
At the time, Compton was working as a welding assistant at an aerospace company, but being in his late teenage years, Compton saw his draft as an opportunity.
“I was drafted and on Nov. 25 I reported for duty,” Compton said. “I found basic training to almost be fun with all the marching, shooting and physical activities… I never thought of myself as a poor person, but I never complained about the food. When I got into the army, I had all I wanted to eat… all the chocolate milk I wanted.”
Though talking in the chow halls was forbidden and allotted meal times were narrow, Compton illustrated the generous meals of meats, pancakes and waffles galore, and even a choice of how eggs were cooked on Sundays.
“We were told ‘an army travels on their stomach’… and they certainly treated us like it,” Compton said. “When I reported for duty in November, I weighed 119 pounds, and in less than a month in basic training, I was 135.”
Following his surprising appreciation for basic training, Compton reported straight to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) where he decided to go airborne.
At Fort Letterwood in Missouri, he was trained in demolition, common engineering and tactical bridges before being bussed to Fort Benning in Georgia for paratrooper jump school.
“It was a lot of physical training in just three weeks,” Compton emphasized. “My third jump, I was carrying equipment that weighed almost as much as I did with a big backpack on my belly.”
From paratrooper jump school, Compton decided to take off as much leave as he could to spend time with family and friends before being deployed in Vietnam.
“I took a bus from Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida to visit mom and get to know my stepfather,” Compton said. “A few days later I flew back to Los Angeles to visit my dad. I remember the stewardess making a big fuss about me being in full uniform and shiny boots, and they let me sit in first class.”
With his leave wrapping up, Compton set out from Camp Ord in California on a Boeing 707 en route to Vietnam.
“I remember it being so cool because a captain sat next to me on the plane, and I was able to chat with him on the flight until we arrived,” Compton said. “We landed outside Saigon and it was just a mildewy canvas with pits all over the place. They gave us a bunk and said ‘you’re here until you get deployed.’”
From the amazement of the plane ride to the cold air of Vietnam, Compton awaited his first assignment.
“This was all happening during a monsoon,” Compton said. “It rained so hard you could take a shower in the rain.”
Though trained as a paratrooper, Compton was soon assigned to an engineer battalion that did not jump, and while he was upset about not receiving an extra $55 per month, he “accepted what (he) was given.”
His daily routine consisted of blowing up rocks, clearing debris for new roads and driving jeeps if he was lucky, according to Compton.
He was eventually transferred from Saigon to Cam Ranh Bay with just a duffle bag and a rifle, just in time to assist when his battalion commander’s convoy came under fire.
“Because I was out there surveying the land, they occasionally gave me a radio out in the field and I said ‘sure… and that’s what happened again the day the convoy came under fire’” Compton said. “I was in the middle. I radioed the information from him and the convoy back to headquarters… and I must have done a pretty good job because when he came back, he asked our first sergeant who operated the radio and he requested me to be his driver.”
Due to the request, Compton extended his stay an extra three months, and was able to receive an “early out” to return home only a week before his school started.
The Return Home
“We landed in Fort Louis, Washington where we were all released,” Compton laughed. “”We rented some motorcycles, went to a nightclub cause I thought ‘well I’m 21 now,” picked out the prettiest girl there and she said nope!”
Compton had come home to a new reality – one where he was spit on, called a baby killer and far worse.
“We certainly weren’t appreciated much when we came home,” Compton said.
Despite the negative comments, Compton had a smooth transition back home as he was offered his job back to continue in an entry-level welding position.
“I worked the night shift and I would go to school during the day,” Compton said. “I barely graduated high school, but I wasn’t going to give this up… I attended Los Angeles Valley College five years before transferring to Pierce for their welding program. Their instructor there became a huge mentor to me.”
From low grades in the beginning, Compton became a straight A student after transferring to Cal State Los Angeles, and landing a job at his alma mater Pierce College.
As many know him today, Compton became a region operator teacher at College of the Canyons where he single handedly grew the welding program from a small classroom to a department. He worked part time as a teacher at College of the Canyons and part time as a teacher for the William S. Hart Union High School District.
A ‘Dear John’ Romance
“Life is good for me now,” Compton said. “When I got drafted, I went to BYU to ask my highschool girlfriend to marry me. I was totally in love with her, and I knew I wanted her… nine months into deployment, she said she was going to marry someone else. She pulled a ‘Dear John.’”
The two had lost touch for about 30 years, but Compton had never forgotten about his true love.
“I found out we had both divorced right about the same time,” Compton said. “Stars were in alignment and she messaged me online and I started calling and writing to her in Texas.”
Upon seeing each other for the first time in 30 years, Compton had a surprise in store.
“I handed her a Halloween package and a rose I made out of metal,” Compton said. “I got on my knees right outside the airport. Even those people outside the airport that scream at you to move your car, they just stopped everything… and she said yes.”
The couple currently resides in a secluded home just outside Santa Clarita where they watch deer roam in their yard in between working on countless projects for the community.
Nowadays, Compton proudly owns and operates JC Associates, a local consulting business, and volunteers at the Santa Clarita Veterans Center Collaborate every Wednesday, or until “Khani needs my help in the kitchen.”
Compton is also the author of the Boy Scouts Welding Merit Badge, and in November, hosted a camp out for his first group of girls, where they explored welding opportunities and built birdhouses made of steel.
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