Believe It or Not!
Summer of 1942 was without a doubt one to remember in the life of young nineteen year old signalman 3rd class Elgin Staples. Stationed on the USS Astoria, this US Cruiser was the first to engage the Japanese during the battle of Savo Island – an entire night of action fought August 8th-9th 1942.
A Rude Awakening
At around 2:00am, in his attempt to dodge enemy shells and destruction around him, Staples was blown clear off his feet by a large blast. The Astoria’s number one eight-inch gun turret had exploded near him. He took some shrapnel on his shoulder and his legs and in semi-shock, he was kept afloat by a narrow rubber life belt that he managed to inflate with a simple trigger mechanism.
“I was making my way towards a gun turret, when suddenly the deck disappeared. My legs windmilled beneath me as I realized that an explosion had blasted me off the deck. My shock was immediately replaced by a stomach-clenching fear as I fell like a stone – 30 feet into the dark, shark-infested water below.”
In the wake of the next morning, Staples was relieved to have been rescued by a passing destroyer and was shortly returned to the Astoria which was badly damaged but still afloat. The ship’s captain was attempting to save the cruiser by beaching her in the nearest shore. But the effort failed, and Staples, who still kept wearing the same life belt, found himself back in the water.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to go into that water again, but I knew I had to. Filled with dread, I jumped off the high side of the sinking ship and began swimming. Although I still had my life belt on, it couldn’t be inflated a second time.”
He was picked up again, this time by the USS President Jackson, he was one of 500 survivors of the battle who were evacuated to Noumea. It was during this transport where he first noticed that the life belt that had served him so well had been manufactured by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio; his hometown. He examined closer and found a registration number that at the time had no significance to him.
To His Surprise
Staples decided to keep the belt as a souvenir and a reminder of how lucky he had been. He brought the belt back home with him on his next 30-day leave. He had an emotional welcome and was excited to sit with his mother to tell him his story (Staple’s mother worked for Firestone at the same plant that the rubber belt was manufactured). During their talk, she had explained to him how the company had insisted on doing their part for the war effort. To his surprise, the registration number affixed to the life belt was a personal code that was used to identify the quality control inspector that made the approval for each particular item. Staples mother was that very inspector! She was responsible for approving the quality of the very belt that saved his life.
“Take a look at that, Mom,” I said, “It was made here in Akron, at your plant.”…….
“Son, I’m an inspector at Firestone. This is my inspector number,” She said, her voice hardly above a whisper.”