Douglas Munro, USCG, Receives Medal of Honor Posthumously for Evacuating Marines Under Fire at Guadalcanal

 
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Douglas Munro, USCG, Receives Medal of Honor Posthumously for Evacuating Marines Under Fire at Guadalcanal

Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, U.S. Coast Guard
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 27, 1942

For today's military history post, I am spotlighting the only member of the U.S. Coast Guard to receive the Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty."

Background

Munro was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1919. His family moved to Vancouver, Washington in 1919 in the southwestern part of the state. He graduated from Cle Elum High School in 1937. Munro attended Central Washington University for one year, then left school to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. He had an outstanding record as an enlisted man and was promoted rapidly through the ratings to a signalman, first class.

When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Coast Guard vessels and personnel came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. Munro was assigned to units involved in the initial American military offensive in the Pacific Theatre: the attack on the Japanese-occupied island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons.

[During the war, the Coast Guard manned over 350 ships and hundreds more amphibious type assault craft. It was in these ships and craft that the Coast Guard fulfilled one of its most important but least glamorous roles during the war – that is getting the men to the beaches.]

After initial landings on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942 the Marines captured the main Japanese airstrip (still under construction), renamed it Henderson Field, and sought to push further into island's interior. On Sunday September 27, three companies of the 7th Marine Division commanded by Lt. Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller launched an amphibious landing on the west side of the Matanikau River. The Marines were transported to a small cove near Point Cruz by 10 Higgins boats and LCTs (landing craft-tank), with Signalman 1st Class Munro in overall command of the landing. After disembarking the Marines at about noon, Munro and his ships returned to base on Lunga Point, close to Henderson Field.

Typical Higgins boat, loaded with soldiers, reinforcement for Okinawa, April 1945; Image courtesy of http://www.navsource.org/archives/10/03/100315901.jpg
Typical Higgins boat, loaded with soldiers, reinforcement for Okinawa, April 1945
Image courtesy of http://www.navsource.org/archives/10/03/100315901.jpg

The Marines met no initial opposition. However, at about 1:50 pm, the Marines were attacked by large numbers of organized Japanese units, including heavy machine guns. At about the same time, 17 high-level Japanese bombers flew over the destroyer USS Monssen (DD-436), which had been laying down covering fire when the Marines initially landed. The Monssen withdrew to a safer distance.

The 500 Marines were in dire straits, but could not communicate this to anyone, as they had neglected to take a radio with them. Thinking out of the box, a number of the Marines took off their undershirts, and spelled out "HELP" on the ridge they were occupying. A Douglas SBD Dauntless pilot spotted the unconventional message, and communicated it back to the base at Lunga Point.

A flurry of activity resulted in the same boats that had put the Marines on the beach were assembled to extract them. Douglas Munro, who had taken charge of the original landing, volunteered to lead the boats back to the beach. None of these boats were heavily armed or well protected. For instance, Munro's Higgin's boat had a plywood hull, it was slow, vulnerable to small arms fire, and was armed only with two air-cooled .30 caliber Lewis machine guns.

As Munro led the boats ashore the Japanese fired on the small craft from Point Cruz, the ridges abandoned by the Marines, and from positions east of the beach. This intense fire from three strong interlocking positions disrupted the landing and caused a number of casualties among the virtually defenseless crews in the boats. Despite the intense fire Munro led the boats ashore. Reaching the shore in waves, Munro led them to the beach two or three at a time to pick up the Marines. Munro and Petty Officer Raymond Evans provided covering fire from an exposed position on the beach.

As the Marines reembarked, the Japanese pressed toward the beach making the withdrawal more dangerous with each second. The Monssen and a Douglas "Dauntless" dive bomber provided additional cover for the withdrawing Marines. The Marines arrived on the beach to embark on the landing craft while the Japanese kept up a murderous fire from the ridges about 500 yards from the beach. Munro, seeing the dangerous situation, maneuvered his boat between the enemy and those withdrawing to protect the remnants of the battalion. Successfully providing cover, all the Marines including twenty-five wounded managed to escape.

"Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal"; Painting by Bernard D
"Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal"
Painting by Bernard D'Andrea for the Coast Guard Bicentennial Celebration
Image courtesy of https://www.uscg.mil/history/people/munrophotogallery.asp

With all the Marines safely in the small craft, Munro and Evans steered their LCP off shore. As they passed towards Point Cruz they noticed an LCT full of Marines grounded on the beach. Munro steered his craft and directed another tank lighter to pull it off. Twenty minutes later, the craft was free and heading to sea. Before they could get far from shore, the Japanese set up a machine gun and began firing at the boats. Evans saw the fire and shouted a warning to Munro. The roar of the boat's engine, however, prevented Munro from hearing and a single bullet hit him in the base of the skull. [It was reported at the time that as the boats were withdrawing, Munro remained conscious and said his last words, "Did they get off?"]

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."

Footnote #1: Munro received the Navy Medal of Honor, because the Coast Guard was operating under the Department of the Navy, and there was no version of the award specifically for members of the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard Medal of Honor was authorized in 1963, but has never been designed or minted.

Medal of Honor, Navy version since 1942
Medal of Honor, Navy version since 1942

Footnote #2: Munro's Medal of Honor is on display at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, in Cape May, NJ.

Footnote #3: Three vessels have been named for Munro, including:

  1. The Navy destroyer USS Douglas A Munro (DD-422), launched in 1944, served during the Second World War and Korea – receiving 3 battle stars for Korean War service. She was finally struck from the rolls in 1965, in January, 1966 sunk as a target;
  2. USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC-724) is a High Endurance Cutter of the Coast Guard, currently home-ported in Kodiak, AK; and,
  3. USCGC Munro (WMSL-755) is the sixth Legend-class cutter of the Coast Guard. It was launched in September, 2015 and is still under construction.

 

USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC-724), photo taken in 2005
USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC-724), photo taken in 2005

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