Donal Leon Staples Sr. was born Sept. 22, 1927, and grew up in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, during the Great Depression.
The fifth of eight children to Fred Louis and Althea Margaret (Fifield) Staples, the family lived in a small house with little insulation and an outhouse until the pantry was converted to a bathroom when Don was about 10 years old.
Don’s father worked on the railroad full-time and as a lobsterman on the side. His mother ran a small store out of their home, selling lobsters and candy. There was even a gas pump in the yard for bit; though there weren’t many cars, people needed to fill cans to gas up their boats.
Hard Work At A Young Age
Don was only 11 years old when he started lobstering; he had a small skiff, 11 lobster pots (traps) and speared his own bait. Everything he caught he gave to his mother to sell. His first official job was at Estes Candy Kitchen in Brant Rock at age 14 or 15.
He and his sister, Cynthia, hand-wrapped popcorn bars and candy and could eat all the saltwater taffy they wanted. All the money they made, again, went to support the family. Don later had a job mowing lawns – $1 for a four- to five-hour job – where he finally got to keep what he earned.
Dedicated to the Military
At the age of 16, Don was on a deferred enlistment in the Navy; he was only 17 when he came aboard the Navy ship USS Chandeleur during World War II. The Seaman First Class was told by his father not to volunteer for any duty, but Don couldn’t help it – he raised his hand when asked if anyone knew how to run a boat.
It was 1945 and Don had spent 40 days traveling the Pacific on a troop carrier before being dropped off at Kerama Retto, a Japanese archipelago southwest of Okinawa, that served as a supply and maintenance anchorage for the U.S. ships involved in the battle of Okinawa. On April 1, three days after Don’s arrival, the initial assaults began on Okinawa.
The Chandeleur was a seaplane tender. Planes would take off at different times and generally be gone for about 21 hours at a time. They flew reconnaissance runs looking for enemy ships and subs. Seaplanes fly low and slow and didn’t carry arms, except for a machine gun. Don said when an enemy ship was spotted, pilots called in bombers. The Chandeleur’s seaplanes took part in sinking a Japanese sub off Okinawa on March 31 and on April 7, spotted the Japanese battleship Yamato, which was then sunk by carrier planes.
Seaman First Class Staples was responsible for running a 35-foot rearming boat. He had one crewman, OJ, 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.
Don and OJ spent nights responding to General Quarter alarms, which alerted the men to Japanese kamikaze threats to the ship. He said the Japanese strategy was to keep the crew up all night so they’d be too tired to fight. The final alarm of the night was usually at 4 a.m.
“I’d just get to bed when I would be awakened around 4:30 a.m. to take a flight crew out to a seaplane. After dropping off the crew at the plane, I’d check the take off path for logs and other floating debris before the seaplane took off.”
They’d get a reprieve only on rainy or foggy days; the kamikazes didn’t come in that weather.
“We loved those days as we got a full night’s sleep and sometimes a full day’s sleep,” Don said. He also recalled listening to Tokyo Rose on the radio. “She played beautiful music. We’d hear her say, ‘Chandeleur, we missed you last night, but we’ll get you tonight.”
In addition to alarm duty, Don ferried repair crews to the seaplanes and relief crews when the planes returned. He also ferried officers and men to different ships throughout the day. It’s no surprise that Don was always tired.
The exhaustion caught up to Don, and one day he fell while climbing the Jacob’s ladder, hitting a boat on his way down and landing in the water. The ship’s captain ordered Don to see him right away. Don put on his dress uniform and reported to Captain Tracy.
When Don explained to his captain that the alarms kept him up all night before he started work at 4:30 a.m., and that he’d often miss breakfast and lunch, the captain took him off alarm duty.
“I’d get to sleep in while the others got up, roughing up my mattress on their way out. From then on, whenever we thought we were going to be called to duty soon, we’d speak to the chief and he’d put OJ and me at the front of the line in the mess hall. We got plenty to eat after that.”
A Promotion Well Earned
Captain Tracy not only had a part in Don being well fed while serving on the Chandeleur, he also promoted him.
“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,” Don recalls. “When we got to the Battleship Maryland, my boat was rising up and down with the swells and I knew it’d be tricky to get the captain off safely. My boat was just a small toy next to the battleship.”
The Seaman First Class 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.
Later that day Don was in his quarters when he was ordered to the fantail. A man was there who asked Don five questions, after which he was told that he was now a Third Class Aviation Boatswain Mate, retroactive 30 days.
Commendation Given, Medal Not Received
One day Don was called to the quarter deck and instructed to pick up an 11-member crew from a patrol bomber mariner (PBM) that had just landed. While on his way, he saw that the crew of another bomber was in trouble. The plane wouldn’t turn and was positioned so its outside propeller would have chewed up the first plane and its crew.
“It would have been a disaster,” he said.
Don made a slashing sign across his throat to the pilot of the distressed plane to tell him to the cut the engine and told OJ to hit the deck. Don steered his boat under the wing of the PBM, right at the bow of the second plane.
“It hit him hard, putting a dent in the seaplane, because I had to push him back quick. It was a helluva decision I made, but I had to do it,” Don said, adding that the pilot of the second plane was so impressed, he wrote up a commendation and gave it to him.
“Apparently, the captain never got a copy as I never got a medal," he said.
Don and his crew had more adventures, including enduring three days onboard the ship during a typhoon, ending up in a minefield outside anti-submarine nets, sinking lifeboats and being rescued after spending two hours in the water after a rescue mission gone wrong.
On Sept. 2, 1945, the adventures and battles came to end when the Japanese foreign minister signed a surrender treaty with Gen. MacArthur on the USS Missouri. Don was in Tokyo Bay that day, and what he remembers most was when the lights came on after living in blackout conditions for years.
It was about this time that Don received news from home that his sister Natalie’s young daughter, Diane, had drowned.
“She was my doll. I took care of her all the time; I stayed at the rail crying for a long time that day,” he remembers.
On Oct. 16, the Chandeleur left Japan and returned to San Diego for an overhaul, where Don finally got off the ship.
Don was only 18 years old when he completed his duties with the Navy. However, he stayed on with the Navy Reserves. He returned to Massachusetts, where he finished his last year of high school in a program for Veterans called the 52-20 Club. He was paid $20 a week for 52 weeks; he graduated in 1947 at the age of 19.
The young Veteran found a good job at Marshfield Sand and Gravel, where he also met his future bride, Elaine Dobie. Their first date was at the Fieldstone Ballroom; Don had learned ballroom dancing in a night class during high school. Sandra, Don’s oldest daughter, has fond memories of her father being a graceful dancer – they would dance waltzes and polkas in the kitchen when she was a child.
The Korean Conflict
After Don’s service in World War II and because he stayed on with the Navy Reserves, he was called up during the Korean War, serving from 1951 to 1952. He was assigned to the USS Salerno Bay, a small aircraft carrier, as Third Class Aviation Boatswain Mate. After multiple repairs to the ship, Don and the crew were sent to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Don and Elaine married on July 21, 1951, while Don was still in the Navy.
Don went on to spend time in Jamaica and then Norfolk. There were many times Don and the other men were at sea and had no idea where exactly they were. Don says he’ll never forget when his time in the Navy came to an end; the captain and officers lined up to salute him as he departed the ship for the last time. Don was honored by this and will cherish the memory of a career and job well done.
A Family For Don
The young couple bought their first home in 1953 in Brant Rock for $10,000; they raised their five children there and sold the house when they retired in 1985.
Their first son, Donal Leon Jr. (Donnie) was born in 1953; they went on to have Gregory Keith, Sandra Elaine, Robin Louise and Suzanne Judith. Soon after Sandra was born, Don bought a lobster boat and named it The Sandra E. The boat came from Kennebunkport and had previously been sunk, so it needed a lot of work.
His next boat, The SaRoSu, was named after his three daughters – Sandra, Robin and Sue. Don lobstered during summers and worked as a carpenter other times of the year. In 1970 Don and Elaine bought land in North Waterboro and built a cabin in the woods near Lake Arrowhead. Only three hours from where they lived in Marshfield, the family visited Maine during fall, winter and spring.
Summers were spent lobstering not only for Don, but for the family. Occasionally the children would accompany Don on the ocean when they were old enough. Robin remembers coming home from school every day and calling her father on the radio: “KBQ5464 Base to Marine, are you there, Dad?” Don left early in the mornings before the kids were up, so keeping in touch this way was nice.
Don has prided himself on being a family man, so it was extremely rare for him to stop and have a beer with the other lobstermen at the end of a work day. “Many of them did it daily, but I had no desire to do that,” he said.
Serving the Community
Don was actively involved in the South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association and the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. He served as president of the South Shore association for a term and was on the board of the Massachusetts association. In this capacity, he met Sen. Ted Kennedy several times. In addition, Don was one of the leaders who started a lobster boat insurance cooperative that serves members to this day.
Being a volunteer firefighter was also a large part of Don’s community service. He was with the Ocean Bluff Fire Station for 25 years and even responded to a fire at Estes Candy Kitchen where he worked as a boy. The popcorn machine caught on fire, which happened all the time when he worked there, Don said. The fire only caused a small hole in the roof, but the shop never reopened.
Retirement for Don
Don retired from lobstering in spring 1985 at the age of 57. It’s also when Don and Elaine moved to Parsonsfield, Maine, where they built a log cabin to enjoy their retirement.
About Maine Veterans' Homes
Don's life continues to be full of activity, family and friends now that he's a resident at MVH - Scarborough. Our residents engage in the same activities they enjoyed before becoming part of the MVH family and they also discover new passions. To learn more about becoming a resident here, download our free Eligibility Guide.