Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle
December 7 marked the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Oahu. In a surprise military strike on the American fleet, Dec. 7, 1941, by the Imperial Japanese navy, U.S. forces suffered tremendous losses in both military assets, and – more significantly – lives. In all, 2,335 military personnel were tragically killed and 1,143 were wounded during the battle that ensued.
Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese navy, famously said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Pearl Harbor was the catalyst for the U.S. officially entering World War II with then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declaring a state of war with Japan.
The Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands began Aug. 7, 1942, when the Allied naval forces launched a surprise attack to seize control of a Japanese air base under construction near Lunga Point on Guadalcanal.
“In the summer of 1942, the Solomon Islands took center stage in the global conflict as Allied forces engaged in their first major offensive in the Pacific,” said Rear Adm. Donna Cottrell, commander Joint Inter-Agency Task Force West. “Japanese forces invaded the islands and began building an airfield at Lunga Point. This strategic location threatened Australia and would give Japan control of the sea [and] lines of communication between the U.S. and Australia. In response, Allied forces executed a surprise attack on Aug. 7, 1942, and the Coast Guard was integral to this operation.”
The Battle of Guadalcanal was a series of land, sea and air battles occurring over the next six months as Allied and imperial forces rapidly attempted to send reinforcements to Guadalcanal and deny their enemy the ability to maintain control over the airfield. Both sides endured heavy casualties from combat and harsh conditions. The Japanese suffered far greater losses in men and equipment, forcing their withdrawal from Guadalcanal in February 1943.
Coast Guard’s role
The Coast Guard has participated in every war or conflict in which the U.S. was involved. During World War II, this small service provided critical skill sets to combatant commanders delivering U.S. forces to island after island as they hopped across the Pacific.
The Coast Guard’s participation in amphibious activity during World War II was perhaps the most important war-related job the small service performed. Incredibly, the service fully manned more than 350 naval ships, including 76 landing ship, tanks (otherwise known as LSTs) 21 cargo and attack-cargo ships, 75 frigates and 31 transports.
In addition, Coast Guard personnel manned more than 800 cutters, nearly 300 ships for the Army, and thousands of amphibious-type assault craft. In the ships and craft of the amphibious forces, the Coast Guard discharged its most important role during the war – getting men to the beaches and providing critical support.
Coast Guardsmen worked closely alongside not only fellow U.S. service members, but also military and civilian personnel from Allied nations.
“The Guadalcanal Campaign was a joint effort including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Edward Lewis, command master chief for the Coast Guard 14th District. “The role of indigenous forces cannot be understated. As stated by Adm. [William] Halsey, ‘The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.’”
Coast Guardsmen built strong bonds of friendship with Allied service members based on common goals and sacrifice that continue today as many of these same allies work to stem the tide of Illegal Unregulated and Undocumented fishing plaguing the Pacific.
“Today the same relationships are playing out across the Pacific in the form of Oceania Maritime Security Initiative patrols, which combat transnational crime, enforce fisheries laws and enhance regional security,” said Lewis. “Allied and U.S. ships sail with Coast Guard law enforcement teams and Pacific Island Nation officers in an effort to enforce international and regional laws. Host nation law enforcement sailing within exclusive economic zones enhance boarding team capability and adds the much needed authorities to protect local economies and ecosystems.”
For Coast Guardsmen and Marines alike, Douglas Munro is a household name. Originally from Cle Elum, Washington, Munro enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 and volunteered for duty to serve aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer (WPG 36), where he served until 1941.
“The story of Douglas Munro and the Coast Guard is rather unique,” said Lewis. “We were at every battle in the Pacific and the Atlantic escorting ships and running landing craft. Surprisingly though, we only really know one name and there’s a big reason for that. There’s only one Medal of Honor recipient in the history of the Coast Guard’s 227 years.”
Munro received the nation’s highest military award posthumously for his heroic actions at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, Sept. 27, 1942.
During Guadalcanal, he was the officer-in-charge of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of Marines. Munro and his shipmates were under constant strafing by enemy machine guns as they rescued nearly 500 beleaguered Marines from the beach.
At great risk to his life, Munro led the final five Higgins boats to shore and four landed to rescue the final Marines. As the boats pulled away, Munro positioned his Higgins boat between the shore and the rescued Marines to draw fire and protect the heavily-loaded boats. During this action, he received a fatal wound and died in the arms of his best friend, Signalman First Class Ray Evans. Before he died, Munro uttered his famous last words, “Did they get off?” still concerned in his last dying breath for the well-being of his military brothers.
Miraculously, Evans wasn’t wounded during the evacuation. He was awarded the Navy Cross and personally received a field promotion to chief petty officer from Navy Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey. Evans continued to serve in the Coast Guard until his retirement as a commander in 1962. He died May 30, 2013.
Honoring the past
Hundreds of current and former U.S. military service members, special dignitaries, honored guests, friends and families gathered for various memorial services and ceremonies throughout the day August 7 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the landing of the U.S. military on Guadalcanal.
The day started at U.S. Monument Skyline Drive with a rainy and gloomy morning service, which seemed to oddly compliment the already somber mood.
Throughout the day, countless island residents gathered, and children peered from behind their parents on dusty city streets to glimpse the ceremonies honoring those who bravely fought on their very shores.
The day’s ceremonies eventually lead to the shores of Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, near the site where Munro was killed. Honored only by a humble plaque that rests along the sandy beach, service members, dignitaries, and even family from both Munro and Evans,’ gathered to pay tribute to the fallen hero. Fragrant and elaborate floral arrangements were laid throughout the duration of the ceremony. It was culminated by the placement of Coast Guard first class crows – also known as rank insignias – from all the first class petty officers aboard the new Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WMSL 755), a Legend-class national security cutter home ported in Alameda, California, Munro’s second namesake cutter.
Remembrance ceremonies will continue in various battle locations around the world until Sept. 2, 2020, signifying the end of World War II. While the 75th anniversary of the attack on Guadalcanal has come and gone, the memories and deep sentiment of honor remains ever constant. For many, serving their country meant just doing their bit, but as a service, saving lives is the eternal heartbeat and the very core of the Coast Guard.
When asked in an interview that took place before Evans died, he remarked, “We just did a job. We were asked to take them over there, and we were asked to bring them back off [of] there, and [that’s] what we did. That’s what the Coast Guard does. We do what we’re asked to do.”