Under their formal intentions, Memorial Day is to honor those who died in U.S. military service, while Veterans Day in November is set aside to recognize all U.S. military veterans, survivors included. Having never served, it wouldn’t be my place to bend those definitions.
It was John Starling Staples’ place.
Staples, who was laid to rest in 2009 in Tallahassee, Florida, earned a Bronze Star as the leader of the Second Bomb Disposal Company, Fleet Marine Force, in 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.
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“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, 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.’”
Next to the gravity of a life risked for country, that the late Staples played football at Alabama in wartime is incidental. Yet the circumstances of that 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 Alabama 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 Alabama’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 after playing in the Orange Bowl against Boston College, he was off to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for basic training.
On his 23rd birthday, he led an ordnance disposal team on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Feb. 19, 1945. 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, the oldest at 23, felt responsible to get them home safely. He did just that.
Staples would return from the war and resume his playing career, earning an Alabama varsity letter in 1946 before a brief stint with the New York Giants. An avid lifelong Alabama football fan, he was buried on the day of 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 disinclined to talk about Iwo Jima with his family, but his son convinced him to return to the Japanese island in 2005 for a 60-year anniversary reunion 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.
Powerful memories were evoked.
Staples recalled his unit being fired upon as it reached 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.
Joining Staples and his son on their jeep ride to tour the beachhead was a set of twin brothers whose father was killed in the battle when they were toddlers. They sought the specific location where he was killed and fell to their knees when they reached what they believed was his place of death. The twins had found what they were looking for somewhere in the area where Staples had ordered his unit to dig their first hole the night the battle began. 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 sobbed over the thought with his son.
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 we to argue?