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The Battle of Savo Island: Virtue of Integrity

Updated on June 26, 2015

Cruiser USS Astoria (CA-34)

Moral uprightness, taking responsibility and being accountable, to do what is right because it is the right thing to do, defines who we are and how others perceive us.

This story is about the virtue of uprightness. In our world where every right thing is getting twisted to suit man's greed and ineptness, my aim to write about the Battle of Savo is not much on what transpired, what went wrong or what went right. Or how badly damaged the Astoria was, nor about a court of inquiry determined that US ships required more training in night fighting. This is about how our humaneness characterized by benevolence and trustworthiness cast a shadow of protection or shelter to other's life, on our loved ones, and to our very own.

The USS Astoria (CA-34) was a United States Navy New Orleans class heavy cruiser that participated in both the Battle of the Corral Sea and the Battle of Midway. It was the first U.S. cruiser to engage the Japanese during the Battle of Savo Island, a night action fought 8-9 August 1942, although she scored two hits on the Imperial flagship Chokai, the Astoria was badly damaged and sank shortly after noon, 9 August.

in the Pacific War, the Japanese had destroyed the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbor; destroyed the US Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines; the southern advance on Australia by way of New Guinea had been stopped by Admiral Fletcher at the Battle of Coral Sea and the eastern Pacific was saved at the Battle of Midway. The Japanese continued to progress south to isolate Australia.


Who is Elgin Staples?

North of Guadalcanal at a distance of about 20 miles is the 20 mile long Florida Island where the Japanese have established one of their several seaplane reconnaissance bases in the Solomon Islands at Tulagi. The eastern end of the 400 mile long Slot is Savo Island. The entrance to Savo Sound from the east is Indispensable Straight leading to several narrow channels. The entrances from the west are the north and south passages around Savo Island.

A young midwesterner, Signalman 3rd Class Elgin Staples, 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, the Astoria’s number one eight-inch turret was hit and exploded, sweeping Signalman Staples into the air and overboard. Wounded in both legs by shrapnel and in semi-shock, he was kept afloat by a narrow life belt that he managed to activate with a simple trigger mechanism.

At around 0600 hours, Staples was rescued by a passing destroyer and returned to the Astoria, whose captain was attempting to save the cruiser by beaching her. Back on board the Astoria, he spent the next six hours preparing the dead for burial at sea. As hours passed, it became clear the vessel was damaged beyond help and the ship was taking water. Around 1200 hours, the Astoria began to roll and went under.

Staples, filled with dread jumped off the high side of the sinking ship and began swimming. He had still his life belt on. It couldn't be inflated a second time. He was picked up again, this time by the USS President Jackson (AP-37), he was one of 500 survivors in the battle of Savo Island who were evacuated to Noumea, New Caledonia.

Noumea, New Caledonia Port
Noumea, New Caledonia Port

A Personal Code

On board the transport, Staples, for the first time, closely examined the life belt that had served him so well. It had been manufactured by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and bore a registration number. It was an unusual set of numbers stamped on the belt.

Returning to Akron, Signalman Staples, taking his 30-day leave, went home to his family. He sat with his mother on the kitchen after an emotional welcome. His mother informed him that she got a wartime job at the Firestone plant. Hearing about it, Staples thought of the life belt that saved his life and asked about the unusual set of numbers displayed there.

Staples mother, who worked for Firestone, told him that she was an Inspector at the plant and told him the purpose of the number on the belt. She said that the company insisted on personal responsibility for the war effort, and that the number was unique and assigned to only one Inspector. It was his mother's "personal code" and affixed with integrity to every item that passed her standard being the one responsible and accountable for approving every life belt on her watch.

Mother and son hugged each other for a long time.

"My mother had put her arms halfway around the world to save me." _ Signalman 3rd Class Elgin Staples

Integrity is the choice between what's convenient and what is right. _ Tony Dungy, Uncommom

Academy Award actor Gary Sinise, narrated Elgin Staples story.
Academy Award actor Gary Sinise, narrated Elgin Staples story.

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