Retired lobsterman, 92, survives COVID-19, receives WWII medals
By SUE SCHEIBLE | The (Quincy, Mass.) Patriot Ledger | Published: June 23, 2020
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MARSHFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — At age 11, Donal L. Staples Sr. learned how to boat off the shores of Brant Rock. One of eight children, he joined the Navy at 17 during World War II and put his nautical skills to good use. After the war, he returned home, became a lobsterman, married, raised five children and was well-known in South Shore lobster circles. In 1985, he and his wife, Elaine, retired to Maine, where he lives today in the Maine Veterans Homes in Scarborough.
Staples rarely spoke about his service in both WWII and the Korean War until his later years. But in May, after he contracted COVID-19 at 92 and survived, his family decided it was time to celebrate that service.
“My Dad has had some tough times in his life, but surviving COVID-19 was a lot to endure,” said daughter Sandra Staples-Bortner of Cathlamet, Wash. Although Staples did not have breathing or heart problems, he was distressed by “two months of isolation in his room surrounded by caretakers who wore full protective gear, including gown, face mask and face shield,” his daughter said.
He saw family members only during occasional Skype calls and window visits. “For someone with moderate dementia, this turned his world upside-down,” Staples-Bortner said. “He lost 38 pounds and couldn’t understand what had happened to change his world so dramatically.” In mid-May, he resumed physical therapy, fell, broke his hip and had a hip replacement.
To cheer him up, his family focused on Staples’ pride in his Navy service. Son-in-law Brad Bortner ordered his military service medals and other family members arranged for staff at the Veterans Home to present them in a brief pinning ceremony. Nineteen children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and others were there via Zoom. Sitting erect at attention in his wheelchair, Staples quietly said, “It was an honor just to be allowed to serve.”
Today he proudly wears the World War II American Campaign Medal, the World War II Asiatic Pacific Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the National Defense Service Medal – Korean War.
Donal Staples Sr.’s service in the U.S. Navy also has been commemorated on the World War II Monument at Marshfield Town Hall and the Veterans Honor Roll at South River Park, Marshfield.
His daughter has spent the past several years interviewing her father about his military service and his life in Marshfield. In stories she has written, she describes how he served on the USS Chandeleur, a seaplane tender, in 1945: “The Seaman First Class was dropped off on his new ship at Kerama Retto, a Japanese archipelago that served as a supply and maintenance anchorage for U.S. ships in the Battle of Okinawa. Three days after Don’s arrival, the initial U.S. assault began on Okinawa.
“The Chandeleur was a seaplane tender. Seaplanes from the ship flew reconnaissance runs looking for enemy ships and submarines, and then called in bombers. Seaman First Class Staples was responsible for running a 35-foot re-arming boat. He had one crewman, who was a Second Class Aviation Mechanic. ‘He outranked me by a lot and wasn’t very happy about working for a lowly seaman. But I was running the boat, so I was in charge,’ Don said.
“One day, I was given the job of taking Captain Tracy over to the Battleship Maryland. There were 14-foot swells — they came up so high, it scared you. When we got to the Battleship Maryland, my boat was rising up and down with the swells and I knew it would be tricky to get the captain off safely. My boat was just a small toy next to the battleship.”
His daughter describes how Staples “timed the swells and told his captain exactly when to step off. He repeated this again when it was time for the captain to board the small boat once again. ‘He never got his feet wet; he never got washed overboard either,’ Don said.
“His skill apparently caught the eye of the captain as, later that day, Staples was in his quarters when he was ordered to the fantail.” He had just been promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate. “I was shocked. At 17, I was the youngest Third Class aboard ship,” he recalled.
After WWII, Staples served in the Naval Reserves and was called up during the Korean War from 1951 to 1952 aboard the USS Salerno Bay, a small aircraft carrier. As an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate, he was in charge of the flight deck crew. “One time, we had a Russian submarine down for 21 days,” Staples told his daughter.
“The captain and officers lined up to salute me as I departed the ship for the last time,” recalled Don. “That was quite an honor.”
Staples-Bortner said she believes that service medals were not presented routinely at the end of World War II because metal was a scarce commodity. A pinning ceremony to receive long-overdue service medals turned out to be just the right treatment for the long-lived isolation and depression caused by COVID confinement.
Staples and his late wife had five children; three are still living: Staples-Bortner, Donal Stapes Jr. of Falmouth, Maine, and Robin Maccini of Westport. Staples-Bortner retired last year as executive director of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, a land trust in Kitsap County in northwestern Washington.
Donal Staples Sr. is seen in 1944. Now 92, the Marshfield, Mass., native is a resident of the Maine Veterans Homes in Scarborough. He recently survived COVID-19 and then received long overdue medals for his military service in World War II and the Korea War in the U.S. Navy.
THE (QUINCY, MASS.) PATRIOT LEDGER/TNS