In March 1942 the draft board in Roseville, Ohio, where he grew up and attended school, was ready to mail him greetings. Uncle Sam wanted his butt in the Army.
He moved quickly – down to the recruiting office to join the Navy.
Better to have a clean bunk and hot meals than a foxhole and cold k-rations.
He didn’t make the move with the hopes of avoiding the action in World War II, and he didn’t.
As a radar operator on board the USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser, he cruised the South Pacific, from New Guinea to the Philippines, shelling beachheads with the big 8-inch guns in support of Marines and soldiers storming ashore.
The crew catapulted their three floatplanes numerous times to rescue downed pilots from the surrounding carriers. They engaged enemy aircraft in battle and once shot a Japanese kamikaze out of the air so close to the ship that the suicide plane’s landing gear hit on deck and bounced off into the sea.
On Easter Sunday, 1945, as the invasion of Okinawa was getting under way, the Wichita provided neutralization fire on Japanese positions defending the southern beaches. She kept up a rapid, continuous fire with everything from her 8-inch main battery to 40 mm guns. Finally, about noon, her services temporarily not needed, she backed off to replenish her ammunition.
The big ship was awarded 13 battle stars for her duty in World War II.
It was quiet a two and one-half year cruise: Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Guam, the Marshalls and the Carolines, Saipan, Mariana Islands, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Luzon, the aftermath of Leyte Gulf – the Wichita was in on every major battle in the Pacific except Iwo Jima.
Savage makes light of his actions in battling the enemy.
“I was busy manning the phones. The only time I ever shot a gun off the Wichita it was a double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun. I shot it off the fantail at two clay pigeons. I missed both of them,” he said.
Savage felt the first salty spray in his face as a 22-year-old seaman apprentice striking for radarman when the Wichita pulled out of Norfolk, Va., in October 1942 and set course for North African waters.
She shelled the harbor of Casablanca, but her stay in the Atlantic was brief. On Nov. 19 she was in New York Naval Station and Shipyards undergoing repairs for minor damages. Shortly after that she headed down through the Panama Canal and steamed for the South Pacific.
Savage and his shipmates saw their first action in the Pacific Theater on the Wichita at the end of January 1943, in the Battle of Rennell Island, in the Solomon Islands. Japanese torpedo planes buzzed the Wichita and other ships in the group like a swarm of angry bees. One torpedo caught the Wichita broadside but it turned out to be a dud.
She could well have suffered the fate of a sister ship in the task force, which included six cruisers and eight destroyers.
The heavy cruiser, Chicago, was disabled by two torpedo hits and taken in tow by the Louisville. The next day, Jan. 30, the Navajo relieved the Louisville, and later in the day a Navy tug took over the towing duty. Six destroyers were left to defend the disabled ship and her crew.
At about 4 p.m., four more aerial torpedoes hit the Chicago. Twenty minutes after Capt. Ralph Davis gave the command to abandon ship, she rolled on her starboard side and sank by the stern.
Of the crew of 1,156, there were 62 sailors who died. The remaining 1,094 were picked up by the escorting destroyer force.
“It could have been the Wichita that went down,” Savage said. “We were a lucky ship, I guess. We had just one sailor lost in battle. Two others died by onboard accidents – one by falling 40 feet onto the steel deck and another who was electrocuted.”
The Wichita continued to be where the action was throughout 1943. In May she was pounding enemy positions off the south cost of Saipan. On June 19, the heavy cruiser contributed to the anti-aircraft barrage which was so effective in warding off enemy air attacks in an action that came to be known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” or the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Twice her floatplanes rescued American fighter pilots whose planes from the flattops had been shot down by the Japanese.
At the dawning of 1944, the United States poured more and more ships, planes, pilots and soldiers into the Pacific Theater. Victory over Japan would eventually come, but at a very high price. Tough Japanese soldiers, pilots and sailors adhered to the Japanese warrior culture, Bushido, which demanded that “every army must fight to the last soldier, and every soldier must fight to his last breath.”
Wichita was operating off Leyte and Luzon in November when one of her propeller shafts was broken. She limped to United States, entering the Terminal Island Navy Yard in California in mid-December. She remained in dockyard hands for repairs and alterations until Feb. 8, 1945.
She then headed back for the action. She was in Hawaii for five days before sailing for Okinawa, the last great invasion of World War II. On March 26, off Okinawa, lookouts spotted a periscope off the starboard bow at 9:30 in the morning. A sharp emergency turn to starboard allowed the ship to evade the torpedo.
Savage and his shipmates were still off the cost of Okinawa when, on Aug. 15, 1945, they received word that the war with Japan was over.
Wichita became part of the occupying force in Japanese waters. Savage and his shipmates walked the streets of Nagasaki. More than 10,000 former POWs, their long captivity at the hands of the Japanese over at last, were evacuated and transported back home through the port of Nagasaki.
Wichita shifted briefly to the port off the city of Sasebo, where members of the ship’s crew were responsible for inspecting harbor installations and ships to monitor Japanese compliance with the terms of surrender. The ship weathered a severe typhoon while there, but was not damaged.
At last, the Wichita fueled up at Tokyo and headed home, arriving at the port of San Francisco on Nov. 24.
Savage used his benefits provided by the G.I. Bill to graduate from Ohio University in 1952 with a degree in mathematics. He retired in 1985 from Goodyear Atomic Corp. at the A-Plant at Piketon.
He and his wife, Faye, his high school sweetheart at Roseville, near Zanesville, were married 60 years Friday.
“It may sound like we fought all the time. But we didn’t fight all the time,” Savage said of his time aboard the Wichita. “When the ship’s guns weren’t bombarding the coasts or repelling air attacks, life onboard ship was not too bad.”
The various divisions had their own living spaces and the officers had their wardroom. The ship’s store, or “gedunk” stand, the chow line and the barber shop kept the men supplied with all essential items, food, and haircuts. There were movies to watch on the fantail; entertainment by home-grown music groups.
“I’m sure it beat life in the Army, and that I made the right decision in not waiting to be drafted,” Savage said. “I’ve often wondered what my fate would have been….”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.