Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp.
U.S. Coast Guard men and women carry out a wide variety of diverse missions every day as we protect people on the sea, protect the nation against threats from the sea and protect the sea itself. We focus on present-day operations and readiness for tomorrow, but certain days compel us and all Americans to reflect back upon our history and heritage. Today, the 70th anniversary of Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro’s extraordinarily heroic actions at Guadalcanal, is such a day.
It may surprise some that the Coast Guard had a major combat role in World War II and that a Coast Guardsman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Coast Guard actions – and those of Munro – at Guadalcanal were crucial to evacuating hundreds of endangered Marines to safety that day. However, Douglas Munro’s lasting legacy goes well beyond his status as a Medal of Honor recipient.
The Battle of Guadalcanal started in 1942, early during the war in the Pacific and in many ways laid the groundwork for other World War II multi-service amphibious invasions such as D-Day, and for future joint Coast Guard and Marine Corps operations. Coast Guardsmen at Guadalcanal manned many of the Higgins boats which were used to transport Marines between ships and beaches. Often under heavy fire, the two services quickly developed a deep respect for one another; a respect that was further reinforced by Munro’s actions 70 years ago and still endures today.
Matthew Constantino, one of the Marines evacuated that day, embodies that mutual respect and recently said “We were in enemy-infested land, and the Coast Guard saved our lives that day.” In fact one unofficial Marine Corps website lists all of the Marines who have earned the Medal of Honor throughout history, and it intentionally includes Munro as a way of honoring him. I have also heard from fellow Coast Guard officers that Marines will sometimes simply say “Douglas Munro” instead of a greeting when saluting as they walk by in uniform.
Since World War II, the two services have further solidified our close ties during joint operations such as Coast Guard naval gunfire support of I-Corps Marine units during the Vietnam War, operations Able Manner and Able Vigil mass migration humanitarian response, among others. Today, I regularly meet with Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos to coordinate issues relevant to both of our respective services, and I always have our common bond in Munro in my thoughts.
Munro’s legacy is also that of a model Coast Guardsman, whose traits are just as applicable today as they were 70 years ago. Not only did he exhibit profound bravery and disciplined initiative in the face of extreme danger that day, but he also developed a reputation during his three years in the Coast Guard as a hard-worker who was dedicated to improving his proficiency and helping others to do the same.
I recently had the honor of talking to retired Cmdr. Ray Evans who enlisted with Munro in 1939 and was stationed with Munro throughout Munro’s entire time in the Coast Guard. They became best friends and he was in the boat with Munro when he was killed.
“We were good pals,” Evans told me, speaking of Munro. “We both joined before the war and we intended to make the Coast Guard a career. I did, and I know he would have. I miss him.”
Like Munro, Evans was also a signalman, and the two of them continually practiced their signaling craft with each other.
“This is intense practice and pretty soon you get proficient; that’s how we learned. But we did do a lot of self teaching where we worked together to get more proficient,” Evans said, in a 1999 interview. “He was the pusher perhaps more than I was, he had the energy. Although we were working together on that he was really the leader.”
Believing the United States might enter the war, both Munro and Evans eagerly volunteered to depart their New York City-based cutter early in order to serve aboard a Coast Guard-manned transport ship to get closer to the action.
Munro’s lasting legacy is best exemplified by his last words. Evans recalled that after Munro was shot, he asked “Did they get off?” to confirm all of the Marines had been evacuated. A true Shipmate in every sense of the word, Munro’s selfless service fully embodies the Coast Guard Ethos. Because while we work together as a team to accomplish our mission, each Coast Guardsman is an individual who is capable – and expected – to make a difference.
Today, at 10:00 a.m. at the Laurel Hill Memorial Park in Cle Elum, Wash., Evans will join Marines, Shipmates, friends and members of the Coast Guard Family at Munro’s gravesite for the annual remembrance of Munro’s selfless service. I encourage all Americans to reflect on the sacrifices and lasting legacy of Signalman Douglas Munro.