This incredible story took place at the battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island chain in the Pacific in September of 1942. It involved one of the most iconic officers in Marine Corps history, then Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller and units from the 7th Marine Division, and one incredibly determined Coast Guard petty officer, Signalman 1st Class, Douglas Munro, who would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during one of the battles on Guadalcanal.
According to War History Online, Munro was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1919 and graduated from Cle Elem High School in 1937. He then attended the then Central Washington College hoping to be a teacher. After a year, he changed his mind and joined the United States Coast Guard.
Munro’s first assignment was a 2-year stint on the 327-foot Treasury-class cutter, Spencer. He was good at what he did and advanced in rank quickly. When he made Signalman 2nd Class, he was assigned to the Hunter Ligget, a landing craft crewed by the Coast Guard that was serving in the Pacific Theater. He was assigned to Transport Division 17 where it was his job to help, “coordinate, direct and train other troops for amphibious assaults.”
This responsibility and training would soon be tested during the battle for Guadalcanal.
Again, according to War History Online, soon after the Marines landed at Guadalcanal, a small base was established at a place called Lunga Point. Munro, along with fellow Coast Guardsmen and Navy personnel were stationed there to operate small landing crafts and to help with communications.
The Marines ran up against the Manatikau River where they were confronted with entrenched Japanese troops. It was clear to the Marine commander, the famous and beloved “Chesty” Puller, that attacking across the river would be costly and unwise. He devised a plan to land some elements of the 7th Marine Division at a point west of the Japanese position.
Here is where Munro’s story enters the unfolding events. He led a small fleet of landing craft (Higgins boats) with 500 Marines aboard to a small bay called Point Cruz where they were able to land the Marines without opposition. The Marines were getting fire support from the big guns on the Navy destroyer USS Monssen as well. They were able to advance inland up a hill and to dig in for an assault on the Japanese positions. One lightly armed boat Higgins boat was left behind to provide evacuation for any casualties, while Munro’s boat and the others returned to Lunga Point to refuel and resupply.
But, as war all too often goes, the assault plan ran into problems almost immediately. The USS Monssen had to retreat under bombing attacks from Japanese planes and the Japanese infantry forces, who had remained hidden up to that time, began to attack the now isolated and unprotected Marines.
All hell broke loose.
The one remaining landing craft went in close to shore to evacuate Marines, but ran into a hail of enemy fire. One of the two crewmen was killed and the other headed the boat back to the base at Lunga Point to let them know what was happening. The Marines were in a battle for survival at this point. They had not carried any of their heavy radios with them thinking that they had the element of surprise on their side. Things went south quickly.
They stripped their t-shirts off and made a “help” sign out of them on the slope of the hill they were on. This was luckily seen by a Navy dive-bomber pilot who reported it back to the base at Lunga Point.
Munro organized a small fleet of landing craft and troop transport ships to head bank to Point Cruz. When they entered the bay, the battle joined them as well. The Japanese had been able to take up positions along the bay and were attempting to surround and cut off a retreat route for the Marines.
The fighting was intense. Munro could see what was happening and quickly maneuvered his small boat with his heavy caliber machine gun in between the Japanese fire from the shore and the evacuation fleet and provided some fierce firepower of his own against the enemy positions. The USS Monssen had returned and was helping to suppress the enemy with its guns as well.
Then another problem arose. One of the Higgins boats had become grounded and couldn’t pull away from the shore. Munro saw this and ordered one to the other boats to go in and tow him out. Munro, once again, brought his boat in to shield the two landing craft and to provide cover fire. It was then that a Japanese machine gun position opened up on Munro’s boat and he was killed.
Because of Munro’s courage and the determination of the Coast Guard and Navy coxswains on those Higgins boats, all 500 Marines on that mission survived.
For his actions that day, Signalman 1st Class, Douglas Munro, of the U.S Coast Guard was awarded the Medal of Honor. His medal reads: “Douglas Albert Munro, Signalman First Class, U.S.C.G. For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer in Charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal on 9/27/1942. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”
The medal is on permanent display at the United States Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May, New Jersey. Douglas Munro is the only Unites States Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The Veterans Site wishes to express its respect for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro and its condolences to his family. Signalman Munro gave his life for his country in war. His ultimate sacrifice in defense of the men under his charge at Point Cruz on Sept. 9, 1942, gave real meaning to the Coast Guard motto:
Semper Paratus! Always Ready
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.