The Long Blue Line: The “Gold Dust Twins” and the battle of Guadalcanal (Part 1)

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Columns of troop-packed LCIs (Landing Craft, Infantry) trail in the wake of a Coast Guard-manned LST (Landing Ship, Tank) en route to the invasion of Cape Sansapor, New Guinea in 1944. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Photographer's Mate, 1st Cl. Harry R. Watson.

Columns of troop-packed LCIs (Landing Craft, Infantry) trail in the wake of a Coast Guard-manned LST (Landing Ship, Tank) en route to the invasion of Cape Sansapor, New Guinea in 1944. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Photographer’s Mate, 1st Cl. Harry R. Watson.

By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. –Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro

The Guadalcanal campaign began on Thursday, August 7, 1942, exactly eight months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With its lush jungle cover and tropical waters, Guadalcanal was a picturesque contrast of deep green and azure blue. But for all its natural beauty, Guadalcanal was also a fearful place to fight a war.

1.Cover of the March 1943 Coast Guard Magazine showing Dwight Dexter reads: “Jap Trophy-Comdr. Dwight Dexter, USCG, displays autographed flag taken from Jap soldier.”

Cover of the March 1943 Coast Guard Magazine showing Dwight Dexter reads: “Jap Trophy-Comdr. Dwight Dexter, USCG, displays autographed flag taken from Jap soldier.”

On “the Canal,” the Americans would fight two enemies–the Japanese and the jungle. In late summer and early fall, the island boasted a steamy climate with searing temperatures and daily monsoon-like rains. Man-eating sharks and saltwater crocodiles patrolled the local waters. Top it off with swarms of disease-ridden mosquitoes carrying dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever and it becomes clear why Marines called Guadalcanal “the green hell.”

At 2:30 p.m. on August 9, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dwight Dexter came ashore to establish the Naval Local Defense Force and Anti-Submarine Patrol, also known as Naval Operating Base (NOB) “Cactus” (Cactus being the code name for Guadalcanal), or NOB Cactus. This would become the first and only known case of a Naval Operating Base manned and run primarily by the Coast Guard.

Known as “the Old Man,” Dexter was a natural leader and he was devoted to those under his command. His original crew came solely from the Coast Guard-manned transport USS Hunter Liggett and comprised of 22 Coast Guard and three Navy enlisted men. When the men aboard the Liggett heard he would lead Guadalcanal’s small boat operations, over two dozen volunteered to serve with him.

3.A 1939 enlistment photograph of Ray Evans from the Coast Guard recruiting station in Seattle, Washington.

A 1939 enlistment photograph of Ray Evans from the Coast Guard recruiting station in Seattle, Washington.

Dexter’s crew came from across the United States, including Signalman 1st Class Raymond “Ray” Evans from Bellingham, Washington. Evans enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 and was one of the senior enlisted men at NOB Cactus. Early on, he became Dexter’s right-hand man at NOB Cactus having already served under Dexter as a command staff signalman.

The number of NOB Cactus personnel would grow to about 50 men, including Navy coxswains, Walter Bennett and Samuel Roberts. Bennett and Roberts served aboard Evans’ boats.

Dexter established NOB headquarters near the tiny village of Kukum, on the beaches of Lunga Point. Dexter’s men built dugout shelters among NOB Cactus’s tents and outbuildings. They also built a signal tower next to the headquarters shack out of coconut logs for ship-to-shore communications using Aldis lamp signals, a signaling device for visual communication, such as Morse code.

At its peak, NOB Cactus would support a fleet of about 50 watercraft, including many landing craft known as Landing Craft Personnel or LCPs. LCPs had a snub nose bow that supported two side-by-side machine gun tubs, each holding a .30 caliber air-cooled Lewis machine gun. The coxswain’s helm and engine controls were located behind the tandem gun emplacements and this original landing craft design had no bow ramp. It was 36-feet long, could hold 36 men with a top speed of eight knots. With this design, Marines debarked over the side of the boat or hopped over the bow after the LCP beached. LCPs often left coxswains and crews positions exposed to enemy fire when they operated off enemy held shores. Japanese snipers firing from palm trees and enemy machine gunners raking the watercraft from shore commonly caused upper body, head and neck wounds to crewmembers.

A 1939 enlistment photograph of Doug Munro from the Coast Guard recruiting station in Seattle, Washington.

A 1939 enlistment photograph of Doug Munro from the Coast Guard recruiting station in Seattle, Washington.

On Tuesday, August 18, Signalman 1st Class Douglas “Doug” Munro transferred from the Tulagi theater of operations 20 miles from Guadalcanal. He piloted his LCP across Iron Bottom Sound and was met at the beach by best friend, Evans, and Dexter, his favorite officer.

Hailing from the small town of Cle Elum, Washington, Munro participated in his town’s drum and bugle corps during his formative years and directed the corps for three years. Always upbeat, he enlisted in the Coast Guard at the same time and place as Evans and they became fast friends. The two first served aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer, where they both became signalmen and Munro earned expert marksman ratings with rifles and pistols. For the next few years, the two managed to serve together aboard the same ships and received the nickname, “the Gold Dust Twins.”

Early in the summer of 1942, Munro, Evans and Dexter received assignments to the USS Charles McCawley. Evans and Dexter transferred to the Liggett in time for the assault on Guadalcanal, but Munro stayed behind on the McCawley. Munro helped land Marines on the hotly contested beaches of Tulagi and remained on the island with a Marine guard to set-up ship-to-shore communications. After Munro transferred to Guadalcanal, he and Evans were among the senior men at NOB Cactus and served as enlisted leadership at the base. For their accommodations, they built a makeshift 5-by-8 foot shelter of packing crates at the base of the coconut-log signal tower and enclosed it with a tent roof.

In addition to its logistical support mission, NOB Cactus served as an important communications hub between the Marines and offshore vessels. During the day, Munro and Evans signaled Allied Forces ships with the Aldis lamp. At night, the Navy command prohibited signaling because the light attracted the attention of enemy warships and submarines. The NOB command also used “walkie talkie” two-way radios and Morse code to communicate with its landing craft. In addition, NOB headquarters featured a direct phone line to Guadalcanal’s Marine headquarters for faster communications between waterfront operations and Gen. Alexander Vandegrift’s command center.

A rare aerial photograph of N.O.B “Cactus” at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photo.

A rare aerial photograph of N.O.B “Cactus” at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photo.

During the initial stages of the Guadalcanal campaign, the waters of Iron Bottom Sound concealed numerous Japanese submarines. With few Allied patrol craft available to defend against this silent but deadly menace, NOB Cactus provided nightly anti-submarine patrols. NOB’s patrols were comprised three LCPs, each responsible for a different part of the sound. The crews fitted their boats with depth charges set for 50 feet, a depth that could have sunk an enemy sub as well as the landing craft. During an initial patrol, a Japanese mini-sub surfaced near Evans’ LCP and heard the landing craft’s loud engine. The sub commander turned a flood lamp on the source of the noise to see the depth-charge equipped landing craft, and he crash-dived his sub. Evans ordered the coxswain to speed toward the sub’s last seen position to drop the depth charge; however, shocked by the search light, the coxswain instinctively sped away from the light. They had missed the opportunity to be the world’s first landing craft to sink a submarine.

Referred to as the “taxis to hell,” Dexter’s watercraft supported regular Marine patrols and reconnaissance missions along Guadalcanal’s shoreline and to distant islands. In September, NOB landing craft also began supporting reconnaissance missions composed of native scouts and Marines. British Colonial Forces officers led these nighttime operations and Dexter detached Evans to oversee their water transportation.

A transport deploying an LCP for the landings at Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photo.

A transport deploying an LCP for the landings at Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photo.

Marine strategists not only planned frontal and flank attacks against enemy positions, they occasionally landed troops on beaches behind enemy lines. NOB Cactus provided water transportation for most all of these amphibious landings. For example, at about 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 27, Munro and Evans supervised a flotilla of NOB Cactus landing craft transporting Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller’s First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, of 488 men. NOB Cactus watercraft landed the Marines near Point Cruz, a Japanese stronghold located over four miles due west of NOB Cactus along the north shore of Guadalcanal.

After landing the Marines, Munro took the NOB Cactus fleet back to base, but Evans remained behind with an LCP to take-off wounded Marines.

Curious what happens next? Stick around for the next installment of ‘The Long Blue Line’, set to publish right here on Coast Guard Compass Thursday, August 18, 2016.

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