Jewish World Review July 29, 1999 /16 Av, 5759
Fifty-seven years ago, U.S. Coast Guard Signalman Douglas A. Munro found himself far from his Northwest home. The Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal, an obscure island in the sticky South Pacific. On Aug. 7, 1942, thousands of baby-faced Marines were sent there to neutralize the enemy airbase. Three days later, they were left onshore with few supplies when naval carriers were forced to pull back.
Guadalcanal was not a tropical resort, but a malaria-plagued jungle. No Spielbergian wizardry could recreate the fear and discomfort that first wave of invading Marines felt. "I could hear the darkness gathering against me and the silences that lay between the moving things," a Marine private named Robert Leckie wrote in his diary. "I could hear the enemy everywhere about me, whispering to each other and calling my name. I lay open-mouthed and half-mad beneath that giant tree. I had not looked into its foliage before darkness and now I fancied it infested with Japanese . . ."
"Crocodiles hid in her creeks or patrolled her turgid backwaters," wrote a soldier named Martin Clemens. "Her jungles were alive with slithering, crawling, scuttling things; with giant lizards that barked like dogs, with huge red furry spiders, with centipedes and leeches and scorpions, with rats and bats and fiddler crabs and one big species of land crab which moved through the bush with all the stealth of a steamroller."
The Marines survived on Spam and boll weevil-ridden rice. Two weeks later, they had captured the airstrip. The bloody battles and sleepless nights, however, would not end for another six months. Douglas Munro, USCG Signalman First Class, would never set foot on Guadalcanal. But the 23-year-old from South Cle Elum would help 500 Marines get off.
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. This is how 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 five hundred 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 signalled 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 one valiant question: Did they get off?
Fifty-seven years later, an aging generation of Marines and Coast Guard officers who know the answer - or lived it - have another urgent question: Will they remember?
Mike Cooley, the 80-year-old vet and childhood friend who visits Munro's grave each dawn and dusk, is too old to march this Veteran's Day. With increasing difficulty, he maintains the worn flag that's flanked by two hulking, gray gun mounts where Munro and his parents are buried. "It gets harder in the winter," Cooley says, "but it's a commitment."
Maybe, he muses, somebody could arrange for the flag to be lighted at night so that it wouldn't have to be lowered. If not, he says cheerily, "I'm sure someone will follow in my footsteps and take over when I'm gone."
This pure optimism and honor, sacrifice and trust, is as foreign to
my generation as the jungles of Guadalcanal. We know too many
men whose public lives are built on making heroic promises. We
don't know enough about the men who died keeping
Author's note: Mike Cooley died last week. He and his old friend Doug Munro will be honored at a U.S. Coast Guard ceremony on Sept. 27 at the Cle Elum cemetery, where officers will dedicate a new flagpole and floodlight.
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