This Day in History: The only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor
During this week in 1942, a United States Coast Guardsman gives his life for a detachment of Marines. Signalman First Class Douglas Munro’s sacrifice would save the lives of hundreds of Marines, including then-Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller
Munro would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his action. He is the only member of the Coast Guard to receive the Medal to date.
We hear much about the risks that our Marines, soldiers, pilots, and sailors took during World War II, but we hear much less about another branch of the armed forces: The Coast Guard was critical to the war effort, too. It carried troops and supplies overseas. It performed antisubmarine patrols. It engaged in search and rescue operations. It transported Marines and soldiers to and from various insertion points in the Pacific.
Which is exactly what Munro was doing on September 27, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Munro was then in charge of several Coast Guard Landing Craft vessels, tasked with dropping off three companies of Marines at Point Cruz, by the Matanikau River. The Marines intended to establish an inland patrol base there.
Except conditions at Point Cruz were much worse than previously believed. The Marines were in trouble, and they needed to be extracted. Munro wasn’t about to leave those men behind. He volunteered to go back.
“Volunteers were called for,” Lt. Commander D.H. Dexter would later tell Munro’s parents, “and, true to the highest traditions of the Coast Guard and also to traditions with which you imbued your son, he was among the first to volunteer and was put in charge of the detail.”
The Coast Guard came under attack almost immediately. Munro promptly directed five landing craft toward shore so they could pick up the Marines who were already there. But the Marines in the rear guard were still struggling to get to the boats. Munro responded swiftly, moving his own boat between the landing craft and the beachhead.
In essence, he was turning himself into a shield, taking incoming fire, so that the Marines would have time to finish their evacuation.
It was a brave thing to do. Munro would have known that his boat wasn’t especially well protected. “Munro’s Higgin’s boat had a plywood hull, it was slow, vulnerable to small arms fire, and was armed only with two air-cooled .30 caliber Lewis machine guns,” the United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office reports. Nevertheless, Munro took his small boat and turned it into a shield for the 500 Marines who were trying to flee.
Unfortunately, Munro was fatally hit just as the final Marines were escaping to safety. Reportedly, he had time to ask one last question before he died. He wanted to know: “Did they get off?”
Even as he lay dying, Munro was thinking about the Marines.
Selfless. Heroic. Brave. How blessed America is to have had heroes such as these.
Christopher Lagan, Coast Guard, Marines, Nation remember Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro (Coast Guard Compass; Sept. 26, 2014)
Douglas Albert Munro website (maintained by his family)
Dr. Robert M. Browning Jr., Douglas Munro at Guadalcanal (U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office)
Katie Lange, Only Coast Guard Medal of Honor Recipient Saved 500 Marines (DoD Live; Aug. 6, 2017)
Letter from Lieutenant Commander D. H. Dexter, USCG, to Mr. & Mrs. James Munro (written soon after his death)
Medal of Honor citation (Douglas Albert Munro; WWII)
Thomas P. Ostrom, The United States Coast Guard in World War II: A History of Domestic and Overseas Actions (2009)