Throughout our nation’s history, men of extraordinary courage have risen to protect our freedom and values; the most conspicuous such displays are awarded with the Medal of Honor. Yet, in the Coast Guard’s 231-years history only one Coast Guardsman has received our nation’s highest award for valor. This is the story of Signalman 1st Class Douglas A. Munro and his heroism in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The Gold Dust Twins
Munro was born on October 11, 1919, in Vancouver, British Columbia. His family moved to the United States in 1922, settling in South Cle Elum, Washington.
In high school, Douglas was actively involved in the Boy Scouts, the high school’s Drum and Bugle Corps, and was a member of the wrestling team. After graduating from high school he enrolled in the Central Washington College of Education.
However, in 1939, with the war in Europe appearing imminent, Munro dropped out of school to join the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). He told his sister that he chose the USCG because he wanted to save people.
At the entrance processing center in Seattle, Munro would meet and become fast friends with Ray Evans. The pair would serve together from that day forward becoming known as “The Gold Dust Twins.” The pair was assigned to the USCG cutter Spencer before transferring to the transport ship, USS Hunter Liggett.
In mid-1942, with the Guadalcanal campaign approaching, the Navy began training Coast Guardsmen as coxswains since they would be needed as small boat handlers. Both Munro and Evans volunteered with Munro cross-training as a signalman.
During Guadalcanal, Munro and Evans’s orders were to ferry the Marines to shore, then beach the craft, attach themselves to the ground troops, and conduct ship-to-shore communication.
The pair were living in a makeshift shack constructed of packing crates and scrap material. It was considered quite “a swank establishment for Guadalcanal” by the Marines. While there, Munro and Evans moved supplies, rescued downed airmen, and ferried casualties to ships.
A Day That Defined Lives
On September 27, 1942, as the Marines pushed the Japanese back in slow but heavy fighting, LTC “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines sent three companies of Marines to attack the Japanese flank on the west side of the Matanikau River. This move would protect Henderson Field, the airfield on Guadalcanal that was situated at Lunga Point.
The Marines would be going ashore on two Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) and eight Higgins boats.
Douglas Munro, in charge of the Higgins boats, pushed off at 1230 hours and headed toward the shore. The Higgins boats landed the Marines and returned to Lunga Point to evacuate the wounded.
Among the wounded was Sailor Samuel B. Roberts. Roberts had distracted the Japanese by guiding his boat directly in front of the Japanese lines, drawing their fire. He was seriously wounded and died shortly after. He was awarded the Navy Cross. Later, the Navy would name three ships after him.
The boat crews were in the process of refueling the landing craft. But suddenly, word came down that the Marines they had just landed needed to be pulled out immediately as the Japanese counterattack had put the 7th Marines in danger of being overrun on a hill inland from the beach.
Evans later recalled that when their commanding officer asked if he and Munro were ready to return and exfil the trapped Marines, Munro replied, “Hell, yeah!”
Douglas Munro and Ray Evans Return to Save the Marines
The boats raced as quickly as they could to the beaches.
The destroyer USS Monssen fired her five-inch guns to clear a narrow corridor for the Marines to get back to the beach. As the boats approached the shore, withering Japanese fire raked them from a nearby ridge. Munro positioned his craft parallel to the beach so that Evans and his crew could lend supporting fire towards the beach.
Munro held firm just offshore while the Marines swam out to the boat. As soon as the boat was filled, they headed back to Lunga Point.
As they were returning, Munro saw a Landing Craft Tank hung up on a reef. Pulling up alongside it, the Marines tied tow ropes to enable it to break free. But the Japanese fire was zeroing in on the boats. Evans yelled to Munro to get down, but it was too late. A bullet hit him at the base of his skull and he dropped.
As the boats reached Lunga Point, Munro regained consciousness and asked his friend, “Did they get off?”
“Seeing my affirmative nod, he smiled with that smile I knew and liked so well, and then he was gone,” Evans later recalled.
Douglas Munro was buried the next day on Guadalcanal. Ray Evans built his grave cross.
Douglas’s Mother Enlists the Following Day
LTC Puller himself recommended Douglas Munro for the Medal of Honor. The nomination was endorsed by Admiral William Halsey Jr., and approved by President Franklin Roosevelt. The medal was presented to Munro’s parents on May 24, 1943, by President Roosevelt in the White House.
The day after the ceremony, Douglas’s mother Edith enlisted in the Coast Guard women’s auxiliary, the SPARS. She asked for and received no special treatment. She received a commission and was the first female officer on the district staff. Edith Munro was discharged after the war with the rank of lieutenant.
Munro’s remains were recovered from Guadalcanal in 1947 and were reinterred at Laurel Hill Memorial Park in Cle Elum in 1948. His family declined a full military burial at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Douglas Munro’s Medal of Honor Citation
“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942.
After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese.
When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”