Branch: U. S. Navy

   Rank:  Pharmacy Mate                   2nd Class

   Status: Killed in action/                 Buried at sea

   Date of Service: WWII

   Home Town: Eddy                               Township

The USS Savannah just after it was hit by a German radio-controlled bomb on September 11, 1943 and a photo of Selmer.

Selmer Martin Okstad Jr. was born November 5, 1918 to Selmer Martin (Sr.) and Marie Snobeck Okstad in Polk County, Minnesota. Young Selmer was born on the day his father was buried in Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery near Gonvick. Selmer Okstad Sr. died at Fort Bliss, Texas on November 2, 1918 from bilateral broncho-pneumonia, a complication of the Spanish Influenza that devastated WWI Army inductees.

Marie Okstad had grown up near Gonvick, Minnesota in Pine Lake Township, Clearwater County.  After Selmer Sr.’s death she and her young son lived with her parents, Martin and Martha Snobeck, for a time. Marie married Axel H. Johnson in 1927 and they farmed in Eddy Township. Marie had eight more children:  Harlyn, Maynard, Arlys, Deloris, Marilyn, Beverly, Estelle and Mayzelle.

Selmer registered for the draft in Winsor Township on October 16, 1940. He was age 21, 5’11” tall and 170 pounds. He had hazel eyes and blond hair. Five months later he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Minneapolis on March 12, 1941.  After training Selmer was sent to be a hospital apprentice aboard the USS Savannah, a light cruiser of the Brooklyn class armed with 5 triple turrets mounting six-inch Mark 16 naval guns.  The Savannah was performing wartime patrols in the Atlantic and Caribbean when Selmer boarded her. His job as a hospital apprentice was to help in sick bay, perform nursing under supervision, maintain sanitary conditions and prepare and administer simple medicines. Selmer rose through the ranks aboard the Savannah, and he was promoted to Pharmacy Mate 3rd class on April 1, 1942. A pharmacy mate had many duties aboard ship, including assisting in surgery, physiotherapy, or drug dispensing. He was also able to compound drugs and make laboratory analyses.

In November of 1942, the Savannah was ordered to support the invasion of French North Africa in Operation Torch. She helped to land the Army troops and tanks on five beaches on the Moroccan coast. The morning of November 8th, the Savannah commenced firing against Vichy guns near the Kasbah, and also temporarily silenced a battery which had opened up on the destroyer Roe. Her guns had scored a direct hit on one of the artillery guns in the fortress of Kasbah and had silenced the other. Savannah’s war planes located an enemy battery that had been firing on the destroyer Dallas and eliminated it with two well-placed depth charges.

On November 15, the Savannah headed for home in Norfolk and reached there November 30. After brief repairs, she was sent to join the U. S. Navy’s South Atlantic Patrol off Brazil, whose primary mission was the destruction of Nazi German blockade runners. She returned in March to New York harbor to prepare for the invasion of Sicily.

It was the Savannah’s job to provide naval gun fire support to a Ranger Division on July 10, 1943. She was the first warship to respond to a call for naval gunfire at two points on a road leading into Gela, a town on the southern coast of Sicily. She knocked out several tanks before shifting her fire to the Butera road to aid advancing American infantry. She destroyed more tanks later that afternoon and helped the Rangers repel an Italian infantry attack. The next morning the Savannah fired more than 500 rounds of six-inch shells. That day, the Savannah’s doctors and their assistants—including the recently promoted Phm2c Selmer Okstad – gave medical care to 41 wounded infantrymen while the warship bombarded enemy troop concentrations far inland.

More of the same activity continued at Salerno, Italy in September. The Savannah was the first American ship to open fire against German shore defenses in Salerno Bay, silencing a railroad artillery battery with 57 rounds. She completed eight more fire support missions that day and continued her valuable support until the morning of September 11, 1943, when she was put out of action.

A radio-controlled Fritz X gravity bomb from a high-flying German warplane pierced the armored turret roof of the No. 3 gun turret, passed through three decks into the lower ammunition-handling room, where it exploded, blowing a hole in the Savannah’s keel and tearing a seam in the cruiser’s port side. There were secondary explosions in the turret and its ammunition supply rooms for at least another 30 minutes, hampering firefighting efforts. The Savannah survived to limp to Malta, but it had lost 197 crewmen, with 15 more seriously wounded.

Among the 197 crewmen lost was Phm2c Selmer Okstad, who had given his life for his country just like his father. He was buried at sea on September 14 along with other bombing victims aboard the Savannah. His sacrifice is commemorated at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial on the Tablets of the Missing in Action or Buried at Sea in Nettuno Provincia di Roma Lazio, Italy. Selmer was 24 years old.

Plot: 12      Side: East      Row from Bottom: 2

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