Memories of a 100-year-old vet: 4-H youths tell Savy Savinelli’s story of WWII

FREELAND — In 1941, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt was initiating a full scale support of China in its war with Japan, 29-year-old Achilles “Savy” Savinelli was trying to find a direction in life.

FREELAND — In 1941, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt was initiating a full scale support of China in its war with Japan, 29-year-old Achilles “Savy” Savinelli was trying to find a direction in life.

Now, the 100-year-old Maple Ridge Assisted Living resident, and a proud veteran of World War II, is the subject of a film made by local students of the 4-H D Video Club.

Set to the music of Guy Lombardo and his band playing “Shanghai Lil” and “How Deep is the Ocean?” the producers of the film used old photographs, Savinelli’s war diaries, and interviews with the old-timer, to create the story of Savinelli’s almost four years as a transport duty operator in the China Burma India Theater (CBI) from 1942 to 1946. 

Movie makers JaNoaH Spratt, 12, Patrick O’Brien, 14, and Chris Neal, 16, along with club leader Robert Elphick, managed to eloquently capture a time in history, and a personal story, using one man’s memory and keepsakes from a period in America that paved the way for generations that followed.

The boys said most of their time was spent trying to unravel who Savy was and where he went and what the CBI conflict was all about. They also spent a lot of time using Photoshop to take the creases, rips and coffee-stains out of the old photographs.

Spratt was the one who interviewed Savy, whom he now calls his friend. The research led to a lot of discoveries about the war and the man.

“I thought it was very interesting,” Spratt said. “When I first saw him I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is 100?’”

Visiting Savy in his room at Maple Ridge, he lit up at the sight of Spratt, though it’s difficult now for him to converse due to hearing loss. The sparkle in his eyes remains, and hints at the once young and dashing Italian-American Savy often surrounded by girls, making his way through the Depression as a milk truck delivery man, a hearse driver and driving across the country with his pals in his Essex automobile.

In 1942, Savinelli enlisted at Fort Devens, Mass., and began his journey from his hometown of Lawrence, Mass., to unknown exotic places on the other side of the world.

The movie makes use of some clever graphics showing the route that Savy took on a map when he left the states on ship sailing out of New York on July 10, 1943, stopping in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Cape Town, South Africa and then onto Bombay, India. From there the film illustrates the tale by train through India. In Chabua, India, Savy and his fellow troops boarded a U.S. Army C-47 plane and flew to Kunming, China, where he drove ambulances and other army transport vehicles along the famous Burma Road at the 21st Field Hospital.

The still photos move in the film through Savy’s experiences in Burma and China, including pictures of him encamped with other soldiers, assisted by young Chinese villagers who were beloved by the troops and whom Savy called “Coolies,” Savy at the market place or riding a water buffalo, visiting Chinese temples and the headshots of Hollywood celebrities Lily Pons, Ann Sheridan and Tony Martin, who all entertained the troops while Savy was stationed there. 

One interesting shot shows a picture of a message written in Chinese characters on the back of the jackets of the Flying Tigers (the Tigers were pilots of the First American Volunteer Group who flew to defend the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese) which read: “I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied military post.”

The filmmakers also make use of some old film from the war, including footage of the Flying Tigers and photos of the Chinese troops.

Finally, news of the war’s end makes its way to China. An entry from Savinelli’s war diary reads:

“Return trip back to the U.S.A.: We broke camp on Oct. 3 1945. Our outfit left and Sgt. Simms and I were left behind and had orders to pour gas on everything and burn it, except the equipment in surgery, which we were to take to a warehouse in the mountains and hand it over to a Chinese General.”

The voyage included a plane ride to Calcutta, and then the longer ocean journey home aboard the USS Marine Devil via  the Philippines to arrive at Fort Lewis, Tacoma on Dec. 24, 1945 and then at Fort Devens, Mass. in Jan. 1946.

Savy was discharged Jan. 8, 1946 after three years, five months and two days of service.

The final photo shows him surrounded by deer at Yosemite National Park in California.

For about a year after the war ended, Savy said he was depressed and didn’t do much of anything. He pulled out of his slump eventually, moved to California, found a job, married and had a daughter. His wife Katherine is recently deceased and his daughter Rose is a Whidbey Islander. Savy spent 68 years in California and worked for a long time at an elevator company and smiles when he talks about sometimes working at the homes of Hollywood stars such as Lauren Bacall and Hedy Lamarr.

“He’s interesting,” Spratt said. “He told me about a time when he saw Babe Ruth through a hole in a fence.”

Spratt and the other 4-H D Video Club members said they liked working on Savinelli’s movie, getting to know his story, some of the history of World War II and his experiences as a soldier. They said they would like to create more moving picture biographies for others.

To find out more about the 4-H D Video Club, email Elphick at

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