It was the summer of 1942. I was nineteen years old and a signalman 3rd class on the USS Astoria stationed in the South Pacific.
One hot night in August, we found ourselves skirmishing with the Japanese for control of Guadalcanal, gearing up for the bloody battle that soon followed. At midnight, I finished my duty on watch. Still wearing my work detail uniform of dungarees and a tee shirt, and only pausing long enough to unstrap my standard-issue lifebelt and lay it beside me, I fell into an exhausted sleep.
Two hours later, I was awakened abruptly by the sound of an explosion. I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding. Without thinking, I grabbed my life belt and strapped it on. In the ensuing chaos, I focused on dodging the rain of enemy shells that were inflicting death and destruction all around me. I took some shrapnel in my right shoulder and leg, but by some miracle, I avoided being killed.
That first battle of Savo Island lasted for twenty minutes. After the enemy fire ceased, the men left standing helped with the wounded, while others manned the guns.
I was making my way towards a gun turret, when suddenly the deck disappeared. My legs wind milled 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 — thirty feet into the dark, shark-infested water below.
I immediately inflated my life belt, weak with relief that I'd somehow remembered to put it on. I noticed between ten and thirty men bobbing in the water in the area, but we were too far away from each other to communicate.
I began treading water, trying to stay calm as I felt things brushing against my legs, knowing that if a shark attacked me, any moment could be my last. And the sharks weren't the only danger: the powerful current threatened to sweep me out to sea.
Four agonizing hours passed this way. It was getting light when I saw a ship — an American destroyer — approaching. The sailors on board threw me a line and hauled me aboard.
Once on the ship, my legs buckled and I slid to the deck, unable to stand. I was fed and allowed to rest briefly. Then I was transported back to the Astoria, which though disabled, was still afloat. The captain was attempting to beach the ship in order to make the necessary repairs.
Back onboard the Astoria, I spent the next six hours preparing the dead for burial at sea. As the hours passed, it became clear our vessel was damaged beyond help. The ship was taking on water and finally, around 1200 hours, the Astoria began to roll and go under.
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. Luckily, I was soon picked up by another destroyer and transferred to the USS Jackson.
Against all the odds, I had made it — one of only 500 men to survive the battle of Savo Island. We were issued Marine uniforms and I spent my time, in between visits to the ship's doctors for treatment of my wounds, sitting on the deck of the Jackson, waiting for our transport to San Francisco's Treasure Island and the leave that would follow.
Though it felt odd to wear the unfamiliar uniform, I wasn't sad to lose my old dungarees and tee shirt. The one thing I found I didn't want to give up was my lifebelt. I hung on to the khaki cloth-covered rubber belt, studying it sometimes as I sat around on the Marine ship.
The label on the belt said it had been manufactured by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, which was my hometown. I decided to keep the belt as a souvenir, a reminder of how lucky I'd been.
When I finally took my 30-day leave, I went home to my family in Ohio. 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 lifebelt 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.
By © Elgin Staples