In the night and early morning of August 8 and 9, 1942, the life of 19-year-old Navy Signalman 3rd Class Elgin Staples of Akron, Ohio, was saved by someone over 8,000 miles away. Serving aboard the cruiser USS Astoria (CA-34) in support of the landings on Guadalcanal, Staples and his crewmates suddenly found themselves illuminated by spotlight and under attack by a force of Japanese cruisers north of Savo Island. At approximately 0200 hours on the morning of August 9, the Astoria’s No. 1 eight-inch turret was hit and exploded, sweeping Signalman Staples into the air and overboard.
Signalman Staples, dazed and wounded in his legs by shrapnel, kept afloat thanks to an inflatable rubber life belt he had donned shortly before the explosion. More than 200 men were lost aboard the Astoria.
At approximately 0600 hours, Staples along with other survivors were rescued by the destroyer USS Bagley (DD-386) and returned to assist the Astoria, which was heavily damaged but attempting to beach itself in the shallow waters off Guadalcanal. Those efforts failed, as Astoria took on a dangerous list before finally sinking at approximately 1200 hours, putting Staples back into the water, still wearing the same life belt.
Rescued a second time by the transport USS President Jackson (AP-37), Signalman Staples was first evacuated to New Caledonia before being given leave to return home. It was while on board the President Jackson that Staples first closely examined the life belt that had saved him, and was surprised to find that it had been manufactured in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Staples also noticed an unusual set of numbers stamped on the belt.
Returning home to Akron, Signalman Staples thought to bring along the life belt to show his mother, Vera Mueller-Staples. In 2001, he wrote about what transpired next:
After a quietly emotional welcome, I sat with my mother in our kitchen, telling her about my recent ordeal and hearing what had happened at home since I had gone away. My mother informed me that “to do her part,” she had gotten a wartime job at the Firestone plant. Surprised, I jumped up and grabbing my life belt from my duffel bag, put it on the table in front of her.
“Take a look at that, Mom,” I said, “It was made right here in Akron, at your plant.”
She leaned forward and taking the rubber belt in her hands, she read the label. She had just heard the story and knew that in the darkness of that terrible night, it was this one piece of rubber that had saved my life. When she looked up at me, her mouth and her eyes were open wide with surprise. “Son, I’m an inspector at Firestone. This is my inspector number,” she said, her voice hardly above a whisper.
We stared at each other, too stunned to speak. Then I stood up, walked around the table and pulled her up from her chair. We held each other in a tight embrace, saying nothing. My mother was not a demonstrative woman, but the significance of this amazing coincidence overcame her usual reserve. We hugged each other for a long, long time, feeling the bond between us. My mother had put her arms halfway around the world to save me.
-- Canfield, Jack, et al. Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul: Stories to Stir the Pride and Honor the Courage of Our Veterans. Backlist LLC, a Unit of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing
After their miraculous story was published in the local Akron Beacon Journal, Staples and Mueller were invited to appear on the CBS radio program We the People on October 18, 1942. On the program, Staples and Mueller spoke of the importance of supporting the war effort on both the battlefront and the Home Front, with Mueller saying, “There are millions of women whose sons are in the fighting forces right now. We’ve got to help them come back. And the best way is to get into war work.”
Two days later, Staples spoke at a luncheon in Akron attended by Firestone executives, saying, “We are all in this fight together and if we are going to win, we must all work together for the final victory.”
Elgin Staples returned to active duty the same month. His mother Vera was honored by the War Congress of American Industry in New York in December 1942 for her “initiative, skill and constructive aid” in industry. Both survived and were reunited following the war.