Written by Master Chief Petty Officer Jason Vanderhaden, 13th Coast Guard District command master chief.
There are many terms used to describe Douglas Munro: hero, selfless leader, best friend, beloved son, outstanding signalman and numerous others. The term that sums up all Munro’s qualities is – shipmate.
In a message to the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp reintroduced ‘shipmate’ as a term of endearment that represents a common bond across the entire Coast Guard family and all mission communities. Commandant Papp emphasized there is no higher compliment than being called a shipmate and no better goal than being a good one. On September 27 each year, we remember Munro for being one of our greatest shipmates.
Soon to become the best of friends, Munro and Ray Evans joined the Coast Guard at a time when recruiting was almost non-existent out of the Seattle office. In fact, Evans was told that the office had not brought anyone in the Coast Guard in seven years. After a three month wait, in September 1939, Munro got a call from the recruiter telling him he was selected for service if he was still interested and soon after, Evans received a similar call. On September 18 he enlisted and on September 21 he reported to Air Station Port Angeles, Wash., for duty. Within a month, both young men were reporting aboard Coast Guard Cutter Spencer.
Munro’s first jobs on the Spencer consisted of standing watch and what Evans called “compartment cleaner” duty. Both common tasks for today’s newly enlisted workforce when arriving to their first unit. At first Munro wanted to become a quartermaster, but due to limited school openings it was going to be some time before he could shed his non-rate “compartment cleaner” duties. When the signalman rating was reinstated he decided to expedite his career by becoming a striker.
Constantly working to develop proficiency of craft, Munro took advantage of opportunities to train with the Navy in order to master his new trade. His evaluations reflected his leadership and devotion to duty and he rapidly advanced to signalman 2nd class. Recognizing the U.S. was at the brink of entering WWII, Munro and Evans volunteered to be transferred to the USS Hunter Liggett to serve as Coast Guard crewmen. Similarly today, we have no shortage of shipmates who recognize the importance of the Coast Guard’s role overseas and also volunteer for arduous duty.
Duty aboard Hunter Liggett took Munro and Evans to the South Pacific. Before they arrived, they stopped in New River, N.C., for some “pipeline” amphibious training with the U.S. Marine Corps. Even today, Coast Guard men and women are no strangers to accepting duties beyond their rating. Similar to Munro’s amphibious training, today our shipmates receive specialized training prior to assuming assignments in locations such as the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. On the day he gave his life, Munro was not performing signalman duties, he was leading a squad of small boats.
Munro epitomized servant leadership. Their mission that morning was to land a battalion of Marines at Pt. Cruz on Guadalcanal. They performed the treacherous landing mission without trouble and returned to their base. Shortly after returning to the base, they learned the Marines were receiving heavy fire and needed immediate evacuation. Without hesitation Munro led his group of boats back to the landing site where the Japanese were inflicting heavy casualties on the battalion. Munro selflessly placed his boat with his two machine guns between the enemy and the Marines to provide cover fire and draw fire away from the Marines. As the last of the Marines made it to the safety of the boats, Munro was shot. He died in the arms of his best friend Evans and his last words were “did they get off?”
In the Coast Guard, we serve so others may live. It was true then and it’s still true today.
I recently spent some time visiting with the second Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Phil Smith. He told me a story about his relationship with the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps at the time, who had been a member of the Marine battalion at Pt. Cruz on the day Munro died. In honor of Munro’s heroic effort, each year Marines assemble alongside Coast Guard men and women to remember his valiant acts.
The efforts of Munro transcend time and place. He was a leader in his time and is still an example for us today. Munro was proficient in his craft, modeled servant leadership, strengthened our partnerships but most of all – he was a darn good shipmate.