Viewpoint: The Coast Guard and the Congressional Medal of Honor 



By Peter Madeira 

On this Memorial Day, we pay our respects to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice – gave their “last full measure of devotion,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg – on our behalf. This is the story of one such individual. 

Since its creation during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,525 times for extraordinary heroism and acts above and beyond the call of duty. Four-hundred-seventy-three Medals of Honor were awarded during World War II. Of those, one was to a Coast Guardsman and, to date, is the only award of the Medal of Honor to a member of that branch. 

Southwest Harbor is a Coast Guard town. Most of us know the Coast Guard is almost the smallest of the six military branches. It is also true that the Coast Guard and its predecessor organizations have participated and fought in all conflicts since its founding by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, in 1790. 

From fighting the Barbary pirates off North Africa in 1801, to the Civil War where a cutter in Washington kept steam up to rescue the president should the Confederacy overrun the capital, to today’s global war on terror, the Coast Guard has always answered the call to defend the Republic. 

Today’s Coast Guard was organized in 1915 and has variously operated under the Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation and, today, the Department of Homeland Security. It has always been a military branch and, when so directed by Congress, it functions as a specialized department within the U.S. Navy. 

During the late 1930s, just prior to World War II, it became obvious that a conflict in some form was coming. Many citizens started to sign up for military service including Douglas Munro.  

Munro dropped out of college, where he was studying to be a schoolteacher, joining the Coast Guard in 1939, which he reportedly liked because they saved people. He was from Cle Elum, Washington, 100 miles east of Seattle and similar in size to Southwest Harbor. 

Following basic training, his initial assignment was to the cutter Spencer, where he became a signalman. (Signalmen use flags and flashing light to transmit messages between ships at sea.) In mid-1941, the Coast Guard was transferred by Congress to the Navy, and Munro volunteered for the Navy attack transport Hunter Liggett, now fully manned by Coast Guard personnel. The ship’s mission was to support amphibious operations planned for the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. 

Owing to a shortage of qualified coxswains (small boat operators), Munro and several shipmates volunteered for additional small boat training and subsequently participated in several successful landing operations, including at Guadalcanal. By now Munro had been promoted to First Class Signalman. 

On Sept. 27, 1942, three companies of Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the west side of the Matanikau River, on Guadalcanal. Munro was placed in charge of the amphibious operation to deliver men via a number of landing craft. After the Marines reached the beach, the craft withdrew. Very soon thereafter, the Japanese counterattacked. Munro’s flotilla was ordered to return and recover the Marines, who were about to be overrun. 

With the Japanese moving against the beach, one of the landing craft got stuck on a sand bar. While another boat was helping to extricate it, Munro maneuvered his own boat to shield these craft from the Japanese, at which point he received the shot from which he would not recover.  

The citation accompanying the Medal of Honor cannot be improved upon: 

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Petty Officer in Charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz Guadalcanal, on 27 September 1942. 

After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machineguns on the island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country. 

Signed: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President 

Douglas Munro’s legacy does not end there. 

Following the report of Munro’s death, his mother Edith, then 48, desired to continue her son’s service and was given an age waiver to serve in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, also known as SPARS. She was commissioned and eventually became commanding officer of the Coast Guard barracks in Seattle. She mustered out as a lieutenant and returned home following the cessation of hostilities. 

In 1947, Douglas Munro’s remains were removed from Guadalcanal and reinterred in the Cle Elum cemetery where there is an impressive memorial. Douglas Munro Boulevard in Cle Elum honors his memory. 

There have been two Coast Guard cutters and a Navy destroyer named for Munro. The current vessel holding that name is a 418-foot national security cutter commissioned in 2017, homeported in Alameda, Calif. 

While today’s focus has been on the actions of one individual, we honor and respect all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation. 

May God bless our memory of them, and God bless the United States of America. 

 

Peter Madeira, Captain (Ret.), is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. These remarks were given during the Memorial Day observance in Southwest Harbor on May 30..  

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