Sixty years ago this week, U.S. Coast Guard Signalman Douglas A.
Munro found himself on a boat near the edge of Guadalcanal. The Japanese
were building an airfield on the obscure island in the South Pacific.
American naval carriers dropped off thousands of Marines to neutralize the
Guadalcanal was a miserable, malaria-plagued jungle infested
with giant lizards and furry spiders. And enemy snipers and air raiders. The
Marines on shore survived on Spam and boll weevil-ridden rice. Two weeks
after their initial landing, they captured the airstrip. But the bloody
battles and sleepless nights would not end for another six months.
Twenty-two-year-old Munro himself would never set foot on
Guadalcanal. But the Washington state native helped 500 men escape from the
hellish island, and after six decades, his actions continue to inspire
generations of Marines and Coast Guard officers.
On Sept. 27, 1942, more than two dozen Japanese bombers launched
an air raid over the Matanikau River, which formed the western edge of the
Marine perimeter. Lt. Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller and the Marines of the 7th
Regiment were pinned on the river bank. The embattled Marines had spelled
out the word "HELP" in the sand. A scout/dive bomber spotted the plea.
As coxswain of a 36-foot Higgins boat, Douglas Munro took charge
of a group of 24 vessels near Point Cruz, where the Marines waited to be
rescued. President Franklin Roosevelt described the scene in a citation
honoring Munro, the Coast Guard's lone winner of the Congressional Medal of
"After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500
beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns 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."
Minutes after the last Marine was safely on board, Munro was
struck in the skull by enemy gunfire. He lived long enough to ask his
shipmates one last selfless question: "Did they get off?"
I learned about Munro's heroism several years ago while living
in Seattle, not far from Munro's childhood home and burial site in Cle Elum,
Wash. I interviewed Mike Cooley, an 80-year-old vet and childhood friend,
who visited Munro's grave twice a day and maintained the worn American flag
that stood over the site where Munro and his parents are buried. Since the
flag was not lit, Cooley had taken it upon himself to raise and lower the
flag each dawn and dusk for more than three decades. He walked a few miles
from his home to the cemetery to do his daily duty; when he battled
pneumonia, his daughter drove him to the site.
Cooley worried about whether someone would take his place when
he passed, but cheerily told me that he was "sure someone will follow in my
footsteps and take over when I'm gone."
In July 1999, Cooley died after a long illness. Two months
later, spurred by several passionate chief petty officers, the Coast Guard
(whose motto, "Semper Paratus," means "always ready") made good on Cooley's
faith. At a ceremony attended by 800 people from across the country, the
service erected a new flagpole with accent lights to keep Old Glory flying
24 hours a day at Munro's burial ground. Civilian and military volunteers
helped raise funds for the project; local construction companies donated
The celebration took place, Master Chief Petty Officer Vincent
W. Patton III wrote, "under the clearest sky that the State of Washington
had ever seen. I recall telling someone that the traditional grey skies ...
gave way to a picture perfect day only because Doug Munro and Mike Cooley
wanted to make sure they had a perfect view of the action."
The legacy of Doug and Mike has been kept alive by the dedicated
lamplighters of military history. We owe them all immeasurably for their
resolution to serve, to sacrifice and to remember.