Remembering Douglas Munro: Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan

For the Coast Guardsman, the name Munro is steeped in honor and history. As the only member of the nation’s longest serving naval service to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Douglas Munro has had Coast Guard cutters named in his honor and buildings at Cape May and the Coast Guard Academy bear his name and likeness. But, for Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, the name Munro has a different meaning. As the grandson of SPAR Edith Munro, the son of longtime Coast Guard supporter Patricia Sheehan and the nephew of Coast Guard legend Douglas Munro, the name Munro is a connection to Coast Guard history and a challenge to carry on the legacy of one our service’s most revered members. On the 69th anniversary of Munro’s death at Guadalcanal, Sheehan remembers the man in whose memory he was named and asks himself, “Why do we do this?”

Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, shown above in a snapshot taken by a shipmate, gave his life while engaged in evacuating a Marine battalion. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, shown above in a snapshot taken by a shipmate, gave his life while engaged in evacuating a Marine battalion. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (ret.)

On an average day in the Coast Guard, 12 lives are saved, 64 search and rescue cases are performed and a host of other actions are part of our day. Ours is a service with an abundance of heroes and role models. So why we do we celebrate a single rescue that took place 69 years ago on Sept. 27 every year? Usually, there are more than 50 people who drive for over an hour or more to a tiny cemetery in the landlocked community of Cle Elum, Wash., for a ceremony to remember the story of Douglas Munro.

A small group of family and Coast Guardsmen travel each year to Cle Elum, Wash.,  to honor the legacy of Douglas Munro. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

A small group of family and Coast Guardsmen travel each year to Cle Elum, Wash., to honor the legacy of Douglas Munro. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

The easy, obvious answer is that Douglas Munro is still, to this day, the only member of the U.S. Coast Guard who has ever been awarded the Medal of Honor. This is certainly special and unique.

However, that is probably not the only reason. The fact that almost 500 Marines were saved that day is also a pretty big reason. That’s not only a big number, but you also need to think about the wives, children and grandchildren of those 500 men. My mom died last December, and we had a gathering of friends and family at our house. One of my mom’s very good friends said that if it hadn’t been for her brother, she would not exist. Her dad had been one of the Marines rescued in the evacuation in 1942. In January, there was a ceremony on the Coast Guard Cutter Munro in Kodiak, Alaska, to dedicate a bronze bust of my uncle, which is now a part of their exhibit on the ship. One of the people at the ceremony was a woman from Station Kodiak whose grandfather had been rescued that day.

Another special reason that we probably recognize this particular rescue is because my uncle was killed in action that day. Even though few Coast Guardsmen are killed in our rescue operations, it is almost always dangerous, and it is always a very real possibility that someone will die.

Something that is rarely mentioned about this event is that the highest honor ever awarded to any Coast Guardsman in the entire history of the service was awarded to an enlisted man: a first class petty officer. Our pay grade, rank and rate are an important part of our jobs, but at the end of the day, what is really important is, what did you really do today? I always smile whenever I read a front page newspaper story about a big rescue operation, and they quote a petty officer from the Coast Guard. I can’t help but think there is some Navy guy reading the article, and thinking, “Man, the Navy would never let a petty officer talk to the press!!!”

The Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to Coast Guardsman Douglas A. Munro, who died at Guadalcanal, was given to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Munro of South Cle Elum, Wash., by President Roosevelt at the White House. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to Coast Guardsman Douglas A. Munro, who died at Guadalcanal, was given to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Munro of South Cle Elum, Wash., by President Roosevelt at the White House. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

It continues to surprise me how often I am told by people outside of the Coast Guard, who say after hearing my uncle’s story, “Gee, I didn’t realize that the Coast Guard was involved in World War II.” We have an ongoing battle with public perception about our military readiness missions. If you ask a Marine who was in one of those landing craft at Normandy, “Who would you rather have as your coxswain, A Navy guy or a Coast Guard guy?” I’ve heard some of them say that they if they had a choice, they would prefer the guy with the most experience on small boats – the Coast Guard guy.

One of the common misperceptions of this event, like so many others, is that this is all about what happened in a few hours on a single day. The reality is that the action would not have been successful without a great deal of training, practice and a great deal of preparation. This part of what we do doesn’t get much recognition or glory, but without it, we wouldn’t be who we are. That is also worth remembering on Sept. 27, and every other day.

I remember asking Admiral [Dwight] Dexter, my uncle’s commanding officer at Guadalcanal, “Douglas Munro and Ray Evans were both first class petty officers, and very good friends. So who was actually in charge?” He just smiled and said, “They were both in charge.” In the Coast Guard, we tend to focus on what needs to be done, and this event underscores that. I think it is totally unfair that one person would live and the other would die, but that is just the way things sometimes work out. I think this all speaks to a reality that we all accept in the Coast Guard.

Mike Cooley, a childhood friend of Munro, raised and lowered the flag over Munro's gravesite every day for 40 years. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

Mike Cooley, a childhood friend of Munro, raised and lowered the flag over Munro’s gravesite every day for 40 years. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

Another important reason we remember today is because we realize that we need to pay some attention to Coast Guard history, just like our sister services. We need to take some time, once in a while, to recognize that if you don’t remember where you have been, you can’t really understand where you are going.

We wouldn’t have a ceremony on Sept. 27 if it hadn’t been for Mike Cooley. He came home from World War II alive, and was sad that his boyhood friend did not. He raised and lowered the flag over my uncle’s gravesite every day for 40 years. His actions inspired a lot of people in 1999 to install the light at the gravesite, and to start an annual event. He was the leader of the Douglas Munro Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cle Elum for many years. His VFW friends were at all the ceremonies: the burial after the war, my grandmother’s burial and at every Sept. 27 ceremony we have had. The next time you meet a member of the VFW, thank them for their service and for their friend, Mike Cooley. He may not have been an official member of the Coast Guard, but his demonstration of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty makes him one of us.

So, I think the real reason we get together every Sept. 27 is because it reminds us why we do … what we do.

Douglas Munro's gravesite in Cle Elum, Wash. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

Douglas Munro’s gravesite in Cle Elum, Wash. Photo courtesy of Cmdr. Douglas Sheehan, USCGR, Ret.

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