He earned an Alabama football scholarship. Then Pearl Harbor happened.

They are acting in their official intentions. Memorial DayThis is to honor the U.S. military personnel who have died while in service. Veterans Day in November is reserved to recognize all U.S. military veterans and their survivors. I have never served in the military, so it would not be my place to change those definitions. 

John Starling Staples was the one who took it. 

In 2009, Staples was laid to repose in Tallahassee. He was the leader of the Second Bomb Disposal Company (Fleet Marine Force) during the WWII Battle of Iwo Jima. He’d been home from the war for 25 years before Memorial Day was even declared a federal holiday, so he had the right to observe it how he saw fit: with a broader definition.

“My dad felt Memorial Day should be more than memorializing those that lost their lives. He’d say there were scores of others that lost something else. An arm or a leg or their mind,” Staples’ son, John F. Staples of Northport, told me last week. “He felt Memorial Day was about those that lost other things as well. And he didn’t think it was about him, because he’d always say, ‘I didn’t lose anything. I came back how I went.’” 

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It is not surprising that the late Staples fought for his country in the war. The circumstances surrounding this intersection are profound. In a 40-minute conversation last week, Staples’ son shared with me that his father learned of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor just minutes after accepting a scholarship offer from UA coach Frank Thomas over a breakfast on Dec. 7, 1941, and resolved to serve that day.

A little less than a year later, he and others were sworn in for WWII service by the United States Marine Corps at halftime of UA’s final 1942 home game at Denny Stadium, a loss to the Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers, a team of Navy aviation trainees made up of both college and NFL players. Five weeks later, the day following playing in the Orange Bowl versus Boston College, he was on his way to Camp Lejeune, N.C. for basic training. 

He led an ordinance disposal unit on February 19, 1945, his 23r birthday. He was charged with an eight-man unit, if we can stretch the definition of man – one was a 15-year-old kid who’d forged proof of age to serve, and two more who’d done the same were only 16. Staples was the oldest at 23 and felt responsible for getting them safely home. He did just that. 

Staples would soon return from war and resume his playing career. He earned a UA varsity letters in 1946, before a brief stint with New York Giants. He was an avid Alabama football enthusiast and was buried the day after the Iron Bowl in 2009. Some 10 years later, his granddaughter, Darby Staples, graduated from Alabama wearing a ring made with a button from Staples’ dress blues jacket. 

Staples was reluctant to discuss Iwo Jima with family members, but his son persuaded him to go back to the Japanese island in 2005 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of WWII veterans and their families. Eighty-three vets made the trip and were transported by jeep for a tour of what had been the battle’s beachhead.

These powerful memories were evoked.

Staples remembered his unit being shot at as it approached the shore. He ordered his unit to dig a hole on the beach for overnight safety on the first night, only to abandon it hours later for the extra protection of a large boulder he noticed some 40 yards away. The next morning, the unit returned to the first hole it had dug to find it filled with dead Marines who’d come along overnight and taken refuge of their own. 

Staples and his son were joined by a group of twin brothers, whose father died in the battle as they were infants. They searched for the exact spot where he was killed, and they fell to their knees when reaching what they believed to be his final resting place. The twins found what they were searching for in the same area that Staples had directed his unit to dig their first hole on the night of the battle. It had been 60 years, and Staples couldn’t be sure with any exact certainty, but he wondered if the twins’ father had been killed in his place, in the hole he’d helped dig with his own hands. 

He shared the thought with his son, and he cried. 

John Starling Staples thought Memorial Day was foremost for those who lost their lives in military service, but additionally, for survivors who’d lost pieces of themselves, physical or otherwise.

Who are you to argue? 

Reach Chase Goodbread at [email protected] Follow @chasegoodbread on Twitter

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.
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