Only Coast Guard Medal of Honor Recipient Saved 500 Marines

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

In honor of the Coast Guard’s birthday last week, we thought it would be fitting to highlight the Coast Guard’s only Medal of Honor recipient – Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro.

Munro was born in Vancouver, Canada, to American parents, but he spent most of his early life living in South Cle Elum, Washington, where he graduated from high school in 1937. After a year of college, he enlisted in the Coast Guard.

U.S. Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Munro. Coast Guard photos

Munro excelled in his duties and quickly rose in the ranks to signalman first class. During his three years in the Coast Guard, he was known as a hard worker who was dedicated to improving himself and his peers.

While the Coast Guard usually protects U.S. shores, the service played a large combat role in World War II, working to transport Marines to and from insertion points during many of the Pacific campaigns, including Guadalcanal. The U.S. had been working to counter Japanese advances in the Solomon Islands, of which Guadalcanal was a part. The island was strategically important because the Japanese were building an airfield there, and it would make things much harder on the Allies if it were completed.

It was at Guadalcanal where Munro earned his Medal of Honor.

Leading the Rescue

On Sept. 27, 1942, Munro was in charge of a group of small boats that were used to drop about 500 Marines at a beachhead known as Point Cruz, by the Matanikau River. The plan was for the Marines to drive the Japanese from the area west of the river and establish an inland patrol base.

When Munro’s boats returned to their rallying point after the dropoff, they were told that the conditions where the Marines had been left were much worse than anticipated – they were under attack from a huge Japanese force and needed to be extracted immediately.

Munro quickly volunteered for the job and devised a way to evacuate the battalion. If his crew didn’t save them, the men would surely be slaughtered.

Official Coast Guard painting of Signalman Douglas Munro’s last moments while evacuating Marines at Guadalcanal. The painting’s original title was “Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal,” and was painted by artist Bernard D’Andrea for the Coast Guard Bicentennial Celebration.

Despite heavy fire from machine guns on the island, Munro directed five of his small craft toward the shore to pick up the Marines who had made it back to the beach. As they closed in, he signaled the other boats to land. They were able to collect up most of the Marines, but some were struggling. In an effort to block them from enemy fire, Munro moved his own boat as a shield between the beachhead and the other boats.

His actions helped the crew of the other boats evacuate the last of the stranded Marines, but it cost Munro his life. He was hit by enemy fire and killed. According to fellow signalman Ray Evans, who enlisted with Munro and was on the boat with him when he died, Munro’s last words were, “Did they get off?” referring to the last of the Marines.

Munro saved hundreds of men who would have otherwise surely died. For his leadership, planning and devotion to the cause, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in May 1943, as well as the Purple Heart.

Munro’s Medal of Honor is on display at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey, not far from a memorial that’s dedicated to him. The Coast Guard has named two cutters for Munro, too. The most recent, the Coast Guard National Security Cutter Munro, was commissioned in April. The Navy also named a ship in his honor – a destroyer escort that served in World War II and the Korean War.

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