It’s 1942, and World War II is raging around the world. One especially hot spot is the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, where Japanese and American soldiers are engaged in fierce fighting. Some 500 U.S. marines are trapped on a peninsula on the island by a superior force of Japanese infantry. Unless a rescue mission can be mounted pronto, their future looks grim. But one man from the United States Coast Guard believes he can rescue them.
That man was Douglas Albert Munro. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in October 1919, Munro’s parents were James Munro, an electrician from California, and Edith Fairey, who was originally from the English city of Liverpool. Douglas was still an infant when his parents moved to the American Vancouver in Washington State in 1922.
Munro spent most of his childhood in the small town of South Cle Elum, Washington. After graduation from Cle Elum High School, Munro continued his studies at Central Washington College of Education. In fact, he only spent a year there before moving on to the next phase of his life.
And what Douglas Munro decided to do now was to enlist with the U.S Coast Guard. His choice of the Coast Guard may well have been influenced by his father James who held the rank of captain in the Coast Guard Reserve. Indeed, the youthful Doug, as he was known, was a member of the Cle Elum Drum and Bugle Corps and took on the position of march leader, an early indication of the young man’s leadership qualities.
Reportedly, Munro told his older sister Pat that he’d chosen the Coast Guard because of its responsibility for rescuing people. Munro had one barrier to overcome before he could enlist in the Coast Guard. It had a minimum weight rule for its recruits, and Munro fell below it. But by dint of some spectacularly hearty dining, he managed to make the grade.
Once his training was over, Munro started out on his Coast Guard career by volunteering to serve on the Spencer, a cutter. He served aboard her until 1941. That, of course, was the year when everything changed for all Americans – the bombing of Pearl Harbor saw to that. The U.S. now went to war with Japan and the other Axis nations.
During his time on the Spencer, Munro had risen to signalman third class. Even before Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard had been given the task of manning transport vessels, serving beside sailors from the U.S Navy. Signalmen were much in demand and Munro had started duty on the Hunter Liggett in June 1941.
The USS Hunter Liggett was a cargo ship that the War Department had converted and brought into service in 1939, handing it to the Navy in 1941. Its role was now as an attack transport vessel and she departed New York in April 1941 for the Pacific.
Munro’s ship was equipped with 35 landing vessels called Higgins boats, as well as two amphibious craft that could transport tanks ashore. And now it was to see action at Guadalcanal. This Pacific island was of important strategic significance as the Japanese were building an airfield there. If they managed to complete it, it would enable them to increase their attacks on the American forces.
So the Hunter Liggett anchored off Guadalcanal on August 7, 1941. Munro had actually been transferred at this point to Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s staff on the USS McCawley, another attack transport ship. Transfers between vessels were common because men were posted where their particular skills were required.
And the Coast Guard men had particular skills that were incredibly valuable to both the Navy and the Marine Corps. They were accustomed to handling small craft in difficult situations, and that meant they were uniquely well qualified to pilot the landing craft that were essential to the mission in Guadalcanal and elsewhere in the Pacific.
On September 27, Munro was given the mission of transporting three companies of marines under the command of the legendary Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. Puller was and is the marine with more bravery awards than any other. At the time of this mission, Munro was just a couple of weeks away from his 23rd birthday.
Munro was in command of a small fleet of landing craft consisting of eight troop carriers and two tank transporters. The vessels were to carry the men from a place on Guadalcanal called Lunga Point to a location near the Point Cruz peninsula to engage Japanese forces who had been offering stiff resistance.
At first, with covering fire provided by the USS Monssen’s five-inch guns, the landing went smoothly. The 500 marines marched to a ridge a few hundred yards from the beach and set up position there. But then a massive Japanese force appeared and immediately attacked the marines. By then, Munro and his landing craft had sailed back to Lunga Point.
The marines were trapped in a position that was highly precarious to say the least. And they had no functioning radio. One quick-witted marine collected his comrade’s undershirts and formed the word “help” in large letters. Luckily a pilot flying overhead spotted the unorthodox S.O.S. message and passed it on.
Now, back at Lunga Point, Munro got the message about the potentially lethal plight of the men he’d recently landed at Point Cruz. He immediately volunteered to lead the second mission to Point Cruz, this time using the very same landing craft to rescue the marines.
And it’s worth reflecting on these 36-foot landing craft that Munro was commanding. Their hulls were actually built with plywood, and their only armament was two .30-caliber machine guns. As Munro and his little fleet approached the Point Cruz shore they were met with a hail of bullets from the Japanese on land, wounding some of the men aboard the boats.
Even in the face of this hostile reception, Munro got his landing craft on to the beach and began evacuating the hard-pressed marines as the Japanese advanced towards them. Every man was taken off the beach, including 25 who were wounded.
With all the marines safe, Munro now headed for the open sea. But then he saw a landing vessel that had become stranded on a sandbar. Munro guided his vessel to a nearby spot to direct the freeing of the stranded craft. It was then that a Japanese bullet hit Munro in the head. With his last breath, he had one question, “Did we get them off?” Answered in the affirmative, he smiled and slipped away.
For his outstanding bravery, Douglas Munro was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He remains alone among members of the U.S. Coast Guard to have won this prestigious medal, the highest award available to the military. As the citation for his Medal of Honor put it, “He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”