The night of Nov. 3, 1944,
the USS Reno was on its way from Ulithi Atoll to the Philippines. It
was 11:25 p.m. A group of sailors were asleep in their bunks when a
torpedo from a Japanese submarine struck the living compartment where
Water rushed into the chamber, filling it instantly. Only two sailors made it out alive. Third Class Machinist's Mate Donald Sauvageau wasn't one of them.
Sixty-four years later, his brother Kenneth Savageau (his name is spelled slightly different because of a mistake on his birth certificate), has donated a scrapbook commemorating his brother's death to the Veterans' History Project.
"When I made the scrapbook, it was more for my benefit more than anything, but then I heard of this organization," Savageau said.
The Library of Congress' Veterans' History Project works with volunteers to collect and preserve "stories of wartime service."
Kenneth Savageau's scrapbook contains correspondence between the Navy and his father after Donald was reported missing in action, as well as the history of the Reno. It's at the North Dakota State Historical Society, located in the Heritage Center.
Donald, the second oldest of four children, was born in Fargo. Donald was 18 at the time of his death. His brother, Kenneth, is two years younger.
His dad, a World War I vet, worked as the assistant branch manager of a tractor company.
Kenneth Savageau doesn't remember much of his brother, growing up.
"I feel strange, being the one to memorialize him," Kenneth Savageau said. "My brother and I fought like cats and dogs."
But he has no grudges against his brother.
Growing up, Donald Sauvageau held the usual childhood interests of a boy in the '30s and '40s. He enjoyed camping with friends and outdoor sports.
"I think I remember him being on a baseball team or something of that sort," Kenneth Savageau said.
Although the family would later move back to Fargo, when Donald Sauvageau joined the Navy, it was from Billings, Mont., where his father had been transferred.
His first assignment as a machinist's mate was aboard the Reno, joining the ship's crew shortly after it was commissioned in December 1943.
The Reno saw its share of combat during Donald Sauvageau's time with it. Its mission was to escort aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
The Reno participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the invasion of Guam before moving with the U.S. offensive against Japan into the western Pacific.
On Oct. 24 of 1944, when the USS Princeton was set ablaze by a Japanese dive bomber, the Reno assisted in the attempts to douse the flaming ship. The fires were so hot that the paint on the Reno bubbled, and in the end, the Princeton was lost. After the evacuation of the surviving crew of the Princeton, it was the Reno that was ordered to sink it.
Finally came that fateful night of Nov. 3.
The Reno was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-41.
Badly damaged but not sunk, the crippled Reno was towed to the advanced fleet base at Ulithi after salvage crews managed to stabilize it.
Due to restrictions, the Navy was unable to tell the Sauvageaus all of the details of what had happened. Instead, they were simply notified by telegram on Nov. 21 that Donald Sauvageau had been lost at sea and that more details would be made available as restrictions were lifted.
In a later letter, the new chaplain of the Reno, Rudolph Ramseth, hinted to the family that Donald Sauvageau wouldn't be coming home.
"Officially, I am not permitted to give any information either as to the action of the ship, nor any further definite information about your son Donald. But I think it would be wrong for me to encourage you in your hope that he will be recovered," Ramseth wrote.
When the details of Donald Sauvageau's death came from M.A. Sawyer, the new captain of the Reno, on Sept. 1, 1945, it was no surprise to the Sauvageau family.
"I am truly sorry that security measures have prevented the Navy from informing you any sooner," Sawyer wrote. "Please take comfort in knowing that Donald contributed to the victory our nation now enjoys, and his memory will always be honored by his shipmates."
Donald Sauvageau's memory has been honored by more than just his shipmates.
Since his death, he has been awarded the Purple Heart and been commemorated on the Military Order of the Purple Heart and World War II memorials in Billings.
(James Ziegler is a student at Bismarck State College. He can be reached at 302-0822.)