Introduction

An article written by Colleen Peters caught my eye in the July 4, 2012 Sunday edition of the San Diego Union Tribune.  I quickly realized it was another Miracles In a Box story and strikingly similar to the one we had recently shared on Write Me Something Beautiful:   THE IWO JIMA LETTER

But this was, if anything, a more amazing story—actually, three stories.  The first of a young Seaman, Elgin Leroy Staples from Akron, Ohio, who very nearly lost his life at sea off Guadalcanal in 1942 were it not for a lifebelt he grabbed at the last moment and made by someone that was “Ripley-Believe-It-Or Not” worthy.

The second involving Elgin’s son, USMC Private First-Class Elgin Leroy (Rusty) Stirling, killed in action in South Vietnam in 1965 at the too young age of 18. Ten months out of high school.

And three kind-hearted souls, 47 years later, stumbling upon something in a thrift store in my own backyard of Solana Beach, and getting the nudge to find its proper home. 

Once again, thanks to the incredible search tools available at Ancestry.com. GeneaologyBank.com and Google, we were able to find a lot of background information, photos, videos and newspaper articles that we have interspersed throughout Ms. Peters’ article.

Seaman Elgin Leroy Staples

Background on Elgin Leroy Staples

Elgin Staples with his mother Vera

Elgin Leroy Staples was born in 1923 in Oklahoma to Franklin Custer Staples and Vera Cupit.  They moved to Pennsylvania and, as a young lad, Elgin worked at his grandparents’ restaurant at the Butler airport.   There, he met and became friends with Amelia Earhart, a trailblazer in courage and dancing on the edge of immortality. https://butlerhistorical.org/items/show/66

Amelia Earhart at Butler County Airport in 1930

The family relocated to Akron, Ohio where Elgin began high school.  He left school when he was 16, moved to California and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps to earn some money to help support the family.

Two years later in May of 1941, Elgin enlisted in the Navy and underwent basic training in San Diego. After a brief stint in Hawaii, he was then assigned to the USS Astoria.

Seaman Elgin Leroy Staples stationed in Hawaii 1941
USS Astoria

 

Over the next several months, the Astoria was involved in the evacuation of American civilians from the Philippines and Wake, Midway and Guam islands in anticipation of a coming war with Japan. 

The Astoria briefly returned to Pearl Harbor only to receive emergency orders on December 5, 1941 to immediately leave port with the active aircraft carriers and other support ships.  Two days later, the surprise attack by the Japanese inflicted massive damage to the Pacific Fleet ships that remained at Pearl.  Elgin always suspected someone higher up knew about the coming attack and deeply felt that somehow their ship and crew had literally and miraculously dodged a bullet. 

Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

In August of 1942, the Astoria, with Signalman 3rd Class Staples aboard, was at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to support the Allied invasion.  On August 8, the Japanese launched a surprise attack upon the Astoria and other ships.   This was the Battle of Savo Island.  Three US cruisers including the Astoria were sunk and over one thousand sailors lost their lives.  

By this time, Elgin’s parents were divorced and his mother, Vera, was remarried to Walter John Mueller. 

We now pick up with the article.

Family To Get Medals Found at Thrift Store

By Colleen Peters, San Diego Union Tribune
July 4, 2012

As an explosion rocked the cruiser USS Astoria during the Battle of Savo Island in 1942, young Elgin Staples from Akron, Ohio, grabbed his inflatable life belt. Then another explosion hit, and the deck beneath him disappeared, sending him into the ocean.

With the help of his belt, he floated that night for four hours. An American destroyer passed by, pulled him out and took him back to the Astoria, disabled but still floating. The ship, however, began to capsize, and Staples found himself back in the water again.

The survivors were rescued and given fresh uniforms, but Staples kept that lifesaving belt.

Elgin Staples’ Lifebelt

When he returned home, he showed his mom the belt. What followed literally became a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” story. The belt was made at a Firestone plant in Akron, where his mother worked. She noticed a number on the belt that referred to a quality-control inspector at the plant.

She was the very inspector who had checked that belt.

Gary Sinise Tells the Tale

At the 2000 American Veterans Awards honoring Elgin Staples, Gary Sinise riveted the audience with the retelling of this amazing story in Elgin’s own words.  [The four-minute video is embedded in the link to this short article.]

GARY SINISE TELLS THE ELGIN STAPLES STORY

Gary Sinise

‘My mother put her arms half way around the world and saved my life’

Deservedly so, this story was big news particularly in Akron, Ohio the home of Firestone Tire and Rubber.   Elgin enjoyed several weeks leave to be with his mom and recuperate from wounds he suffered in the Battle of Savo Island for which he was awarded the Purple Heart medal.  There were demands for speaking engagements and newspaper and radio interviews.  But eventually, the story died down and Elgin returned to active duty for the duration of the War.

Seaman Elgin Staples with his lifesaving mother, Vera Mueller
Vera Staples Mueller to appear on What’s Your War Job radio national radio broadcast
Vera Mueller (left) and others honored by War Congress of American Industry in 1942

Elgin returned home to Ohio in 1945 and married Hazel Muckelroy.  A year later their son, Elgin Leroy Staples, Jr. was born, and within a year there was a move to San Bernardino, California. Elgin Sr. pursued careers as a chicken rancher, postman, San Bernardino firefighter and, ultimately, became a successful stockbroker.

Elgin Staples-Stirling Jr.

Elgin and Hazel divorced, and in 1957 she married Jack Stirling.  Elgin Jr. took his name.   Young Elgin, known as Rusty, attended Golden Valley Junior High and in 1964 graduated from Pacific High School in San Bernardino.  He immediately joined the United States Marine Corp.

Back to the article

Move forward to 1965. Staples’ son, Elgin Jr., enlisted as a Marine. He was deployed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action on July 12, 1965, at age 18.

Elgin Leroy (Rusty) Stirling Obituary 1965

Father and son received Purple Hearts. Those awards, along with their other medals, were arranged into shadow boxes, one for Staples Sr. and one for Staples Jr.

The Medals are found and returned

Now move forward to 2011. Century 21 Realtors Linda Ring and Terri Davids were preparing for their booth at this year’s San Diego County Fair. They wanted something to represent all branches of the military, since they create their booth as a welcome home to the troops.

They were shopping at antique and thrift stores in Solana Beach when Davids noticed the two shadow boxes. Both boxes had an engraved nameplate, and they realized that the boxes belonged to a father and son. Feeling as though the boxes did not belong in a thrift store, but not knowing how they left the family’s possession, Ring and Davids bought them and decided they would find the family or give the boxes to a museum. After learning about Elgin Staples Sr. and his incredible tale, they were more determined to find the proper home for the boxes. And, indeed, that’s what will happen today.

Elgin Sr and Elgin Jr Medals in Shadow Boxes

Allen Staples will receive the boxes displaying the insignia worn and the service medals earned by his father and older brother.

After Staples Sr. died at age 86 in November 2009, Allen said he received nothing from his father’s estate, and had been unable to reach the executor of the will.

“I have been upset for the last couple of years,” said Allen of San Jose. “I haven’t gotten over it yet.”

The medals have been displayed for six months at Ring’s and Davids’ Chula Vista office and at the fair. The pair searched for the family and talked with fairgoers hoping that someone might know about the boxes. When Paul Curtis saw the medals at the fair on June 21, he knew that he had to help find the family.

Curtis said it took him around 20 minutes to find contact information for Allen Staples and forwarded it to Ring within a day. “This is huge; It means a lot,” Allen said.

Though he says that he knew his father had a Purple Heart, Allen had no knowledge of the boxes before Ring’s phone call. Allen isn’t sure how the boxes left the family to begin with. He’s just happy to have them back.

Staples plans to display the boxes in his home. With no family to pass them on to, he will eventually consider donating them to a museum.

He will be in the booth for most of the day today, but insists it’s not about him. “It’s all about my dad and Linda and Terri and Paul. They were the ones who were instrumental in all of this. … I’m just lucky to have them and have something to remember my father by.”

Three Gens: L to R Elgin Staples, Franklin Custer Staples and Allen Staples

Postscript

The Sand Diego County Fair

I shared the article with Hilary and, as we were already planning to make our annual half-mile walk from our house to the Del Mar Fairgrounds to check out the farm animals, latest deep-fried culinary delights and exhibits, we swung by the Century 21 booth.  We got a chance to meet and chat with Allen Staples.  He was all aglow with the discovery of the medals and the attention he was receiving at the fair.

Allen is the son of Elgin Sr. and his second wife, Angelina Moshovas. 

Elgin and Angelina Staples

He said he was 7 years old when his half-brother, Rusty, was killed in action in South Vietnam’s Quang Nam Provence. 

“I probably only met Rusty a few times.”

I asked Allen, “Is this the first time your Dad and brother have come through to visit you?”

“What?” he asked with a confused look on his face.   

Hilary gave me an elbow in my side and I quickly changed subjects and asked him more about his Dad. 

After a few minutes, Allen was called away to do an interview with Fox T.V.   He was grinning ear to ear. 

I had goose bumps as we left the exhibit hall.  

As soon as I got home, I found the Gary Senise tribute to Elgin Staples Sr., and Elgin’s obituary that appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.

I think it is very cool that so much of this story unfolded right in our own backyard.

Miracles In A Box indeed. 

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Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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