The machine gun bullets stitched across the water until one struck Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Munro.
Fatally wounded, his last words were “Did they get off?”
A fellow signalman and 500 Marines would answer.
One of Seven
In the summer of 1939, Munro had attempted to enlist in the Coast Guard only to be told there were no openings. Later that fall, however, he received a telephone call inviting him to join.
“Are you still interested? We’ve got seven openings,” recalled Raymond Evans in a May 2001 interview.
They enlisted together in Seattle, Washington on September 18 and soon became the best of friends.
Douglas Munro Headed to the Pacific
After basic training, Munro and Evans served on the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer where they both became signalmen.
After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the two Coastguardsmen volunteered for assignment on the attack transport USS Hunter Liggett. They soon became qualified to pilot a Higgins boat, a 36-foot long, 225 horse-powered, plywood landing craft.
Under Coast Guard command, the transport joined others in conducting an amphibious landing of 11,000 Marines on Guadalcanal and several other islands in early August, 1942.
The Battle of Guadalcanal marked the first American offensive after Pearl Harbor in the Pacific against the Japanese.
In conducting this action, the Marines entered a green hell.
They endured near constant bombardment from Japanese battleships, aerial bombings and a determined foe in the “tangled rain forest.” When not engaged in combat, they suffered from malaria, jungle rot, thirst and hunger.
Their situation grew worse as the Army Air Force could not send aircraft, and the Merchant Marine disallowed the delivery of supplies to the combat zone.
As the fighting continued, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of allied forces in the Pacific, said the Marines’ survival at Guadalcanal was “open to the gravest doubts.”
Puller’s September 27, 1942 Decision
Marine Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller thought otherwise.
Enduring what his Marines were facing – and wanting to achieve victory – he had returned to the destroyer USS Monssen to reassess the situation
On Sunday, September 27, he ordered an amphibious landing of 500 Marines near Guadalcanal’s Point Cruz; their mission was to attack the Japanese forces on the west side of the Matanikau River.
As a result of this decision, Munro – along with Evans – set out from Naval Operating Base (NOB) Cactus at nearby Lunga Point as officer-in-charge of a small flotilla of Higgins boats carrying the Marines to a narrow beach.
No resistance was met when they came ashore, and Munro’s small fleet returned to NOB Cactus.
Several hours later, the Marines were in a fight for their lives.
The USS Monssen
A half-mile inland from the beach, they had become encircled by a larger Japanese force and were in danger of being overrun. Puller ordered them to fight their way back to the beach for evacuation.
Within seconds shells from the Monssen’s 5-inch guns began blowing a path through the jungle, just ahead of the Marines.
Word of the need for evacuation reached NOB Cactus, and Munro and Evans were asked if they would lead the effort to rescue the Marines.
“Hell yes,” answered Munro.
Douglas Munro’s Last Words
Having pursued the Marines to the beach, the Japanese opened fire on the approaching Higgins boats. Munro and Evans laid down suppressive fire from their craft’s two .30 caliber machine guns as the Marines scrambled aboard the other boats.
As the heavily loaded vessels pulled away from the beach, Japanese gunfire intensified. Seeing this, Munro maneuvered his boat to provide a shield the Marines.
Moments later he was mortally hit. Before passing, he asked the also wounded Evans, “Did they get off?”
The Answer to His Question
Munro died before Evans – and later the Marines said, “yes.”
Puller, who witnessed Munro’s actions, nominated him for the Medal of Honor. On May 24, 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the medal to his parents in a White House ceremony.
Signalman First Class Douglas Munro is the only member of the United States Coast Guard to be so honored, and he is the only non-Marine whose name is enshrined on the Wall of Heroes in the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
For more, read about how many WWII vets are still alive today.