Griffin solemnly explained her father never realized he was the inspiration for the character that became Sgt. Snorkel.
A rather portly and occasionally grouchy Sgt. Orville P. Snorkel has, for decades, tried to instill some discipline into the easygoing Beetle Bailey.
Few realize that the relationship revealed in the comic strip between Beetle and Sarge is a direct reflection of the association between the strip’s creator, Mort Walker, and a sergeant he encountered in St. Louis during World War II.
Octavian N. Savu was born in 1914 in Indiana to parents who immigrated to the United States from Romania. At a very young age, the family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Savu grew into adulthood.
“His mom took him to school when he was very young and when the teacher asked him what his name was, he said ‘Tavie,’” explained Savu’s oldest daughter, Rena Griffin. “The teacher thought he said ‘Tommie’ and that was his name ever since—Tom or Tommie.”
According to his obituary, Savu went on to pursue post-high school education at St. Joseph Junior College, Park College, and the University of Missouri.
In 1935, the 21-year-old decided to embark upon what would become a decade-long military journey by enlisting in the U.S. Army at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, receiving an assignment to the 17th Infantry.
Five years into his enlistment, he married his fiancee, Margo. He quickly ascended through the enlisted ranks and, in the early 1940s, became an instructor with the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
During his time there, he provided training to the students in first-aid, combat tactics, marksmanship, and map reading.
In 1943, Washington University in St. Louis became Savu’s next assignment, where he oversaw soldiers in the school’s Army Specialized Training Program.
The program was renamed the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. It ran from 1943-1945, offering 12-week courses to active duty service members with a focus in such fields as foreign language and engineering.
It was while he was at Washington University that Sgt. Savu met Mort Walker of Kansas City, a World War II draftee who would later memorialize him through a widely syndicated comic strip.
“Sgt. Snorkel comes from real life, too,” wrote Mort Walker in his 1975 book Backstage at the Strips.
Although occasionally a firm disciplinarian, Walker noted in a 2017 interview, “I remember there was a time that the sergeant wrote all of us [soldiers] a poem titled My Boys and placed it on each of our pillows. That’s when we realized that this man had a heart and we weren’t mad at him anymore.”
Walker, who was already a recognized artist prior to his induction in the U.S. Army, drew a caricature of Octavian Savu before the two parted ways in St. Louis in 1944, not realizing at the time that his former sergeant would inspire a beloved cartoon character a few years later.
Discharge papers reveal that Savu, who achieved the rank of first sergeant, was deployed overseas from April to August 1945, serving as an administrative sergeant with the 14th Reinforcement Depot in Thionville, France.
“I know that my father had a service-connected disability and came home from France early,” said Griffin. “He had cardiovascular disease and was later diagnosed with diabetes.”
Discharged for reasons of disability on September 21, 1945, with a little more than ten years of military service, Savu and his wife eventually relocated to Colorado after adopting Griffin and her younger sister.
“We lived in Denver at first and later moved to Aurora,” Griffin explained. “My father found a job as a financial systems specialist with the Air Force Accounting and Finance Center.”
Griffin recalls that, when she and her sister were very young, her father had a heart attack. After that, he took up gardening and grew “the most beautiful roses and lawn in the neighborhood.” She added that he remained active in the community and served as commander of his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
In April 1968, Savu loaded the family in a car and headed east to visit the community of his youth. During the trip, he showed his children the home in which he grew up in St. Joseph as well as the schools he had attended. He then took his family north to visit a family friend in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“On the way back to Denver, we stopped at a hotel in Omaha,” said Griffin. “My dad had his third heart attack and died in that hotel. I was fourteen at the time, and my sister was eleven.” With a somber pause, she added, “He had taken great pleasure in showing us all of those places and really loved Missouri.”
The 54-year-old Savu was laid to rest with full military honors in the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.
Although Mort Walker drew a caricature of her father while they were stationed together in St. Louis during World War II, Griffin solemnly explained her father never realized he was the inspiration for the character that became Sgt. Snorkel.
“He never said anything about it, and I don’t believe he communicated with Mort Walker before he passed away in 1968,” Griffin said. (Mort Walker himself passed away on January 28, 2018.) “My sister and I didn’t even know about the connection between dad and Beetle Bailey until recently.”
She acknowledges her father possessed many of the bold characteristics portrayed in the Beetle Bailey comic strip even though some may have been exaggerated for comedic effect, but Griffin affirms the real Sgt. Savu was a man full of character and compassion.
“While he was tough, he was fair, and I think that’s why his troops loved him so much,” she said. “He was my mentor as well as my father, and some of my best memories are of him.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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