By Joe Darby
I recently watched a very heart-warming story on the Louisiana Public Broadcast system about a USS Arizona survivor whose family returned his ashes to the sunken ship at Pearl Harbor, where he will rest with his shipmates for eternity.
That special privilege is reserved for crewmen who survived the Japanese attacks on the Arizona, which was heavily damaged by the first wave of bombers on Dec. 7, 1941, 76 years ago next week.
But more than 1,000 of the crewmen went down with their ship and their remains have been on the stricken vessel since the day of the attack. Among those young men was a first cousin of my father.
I’d heard family stories over the years that we had a relative on the Arizona but I hadn’t known the exact connection to us or whether in fact the stories were true. I did remember the young man’s name, Ensign Walter Savage. .
Now I knew you could find just about anything on the internet so, sure enough, I looked up Walter Savage and I found the connection, including a family tree. He is also the subject of a special display at the USS Kidd Museum and Veterans Memorial in Baton Rouge.
Before I explain the connection, let me tell you a little bit about Walter. He was apparently an extraordinary young man. He was born in New Orleans in 1919 but grew up in Monroe. He finished high school at only 13 and after a couple of years of independent study, he went to LSU and graduated in 1938, when he was only 19.
He became the youngest CPA in Louisiana but had to wait until he was 21 to officially begin his career. Walter also loved music and was an accomplished musician.
But with war clouds gathering, he joined the Naval Reserve in June, 1941. He finished second in his class at the Naval Supply Officers’ School at Harvard University. The display at the naval museum in Baton Rouge speculates that if he had finished first or second, he may have survived but the second place finish slotted him for duty on the Arizona. He reported to that grand old ship on Oct. 27, 1941, just weeks before the Japanese attack. It also happened to be exactly one month before his little cousin once removed, yours truly, was born.
Walter was assigned as assistant paymaster aboard the ship and his duty station was in the decoding room. That space just happened to be next to the forward stack and when a Japanese bomb hit that stack and ended up detonating an enormous explosion, Walter was doubtlessly killed instantly.
The naval museum calls him the “first casualty of the war,” thus explaining the reason for the special display in his honor.
From his auspicious start in life, Walter would almost certainly have gone on to achieve much. But it was not to be. Like so many other young men of promise during World War II, he was never to return home.
Now, about that connection to us, which I had never known exactly until I looked him up on the internet.
It turns out that the connection was quite close. He was the son of Walter Savage Sr. and Theria (cq) Darby Savage. Theria and my father’s father, Joseph W. Darby Sr., were brother and sister. Thus, Daddy and Walter were first cousins. Daddy’s been gone for many years, but I certainly wish I’d asked him about any memories he may have had of Walter.
Who knows. under different circumstances, they could have been life-long buddies and I could have enjoyed listening to Cousin Walter’s tales of World War II. Maybe he would have given me a photo he took of the Arizona, as it was safely moored at Pearl Harbor.
As it is, without even knowing the details of Walter’s life or exactly how he was related to us, I have two small ship models of the Arizona. Now, when I look at them, they’ll be even more special to me.