Saturday, September 28, 2002

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 air base.

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 Honor:

“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 veteran 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 materials.

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.

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