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War and Tragedy

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The "Gold Dust Twins" and The Battle of Guadalcanal
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - September 13, 2016

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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.

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.”

An artist’s depiction of the NOB Cactus mission to save an ambushed Marine battalion at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal. Official recognition for this Coast Guard operation included a Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, and a number of Purple Hearts. Franklin D. Roosevelt later recognized all members of Dexter’s Coast Guard unit with the Presidential Unit Citation as part of the First Marine Division. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy image.)
An artist's depiction of the NOB Cactus mission to save an ambushed Marine battalion at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal. Official recognition for this Coast Guard operation included a Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, and a number of Purple Hearts. Franklin D. Roosevelt later recognized all members of Dexter's Coast Guard unit with the Presidential Unit Citation as part of the First Marine Division. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy image.)

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.

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..

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.

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.

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.

To expedite evacuation of the wounded, Evans positioned his boat close to shore and enemy machine gun fire raked the landing craft, striking coxswain Roberts in the neck. With Roberts bleeding badly, Evans sped his damaged boat back to NOB Cactus to seek medical attention. Evans landed Roberts at the NOB waterfront, but the coxswain's wound proved fatal and he passed away the next day. Roberts would posthumously receive the Navy Cross Medal and become even more famous for his namesake destroyer escort lost at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

By 3:30 that afternoon, Vandergrift's First Division command post called Dexter's NOB headquarters. A numerically superior Japanese force at Point Cruz armed with mortars, machine guns and anti-tank guns had ambushed Puller's battalion, inflicting heavy casualties. Dexter's orders were to evacuate the Marines as soon as possible. Dexter stepped out of the headquarters shack and shouted down to Munro and Evans on the waterfront, “Will you two lead these boats to take them off?”

Munro's rapid response was “Hell, yes!” Evans recalled later, “The three of us had done duty together for a long time, and I'm sure the commander knew the answer before he asked.”

By about 4:00 p.m., Evans, Munro and Navy coxswain Walter Bennett had disembarked an LCP to lead the NOB Cactus flotilla back to Point Cruz with Munro serving as the officer in charge. To locate elements of the beleaguered Marine battalion, Munro and Evans steered their LCP up to the beach under fire. After making contact with the Marines, they maneuvered the boat into an exposed position to provide cover for the evacuation and draw the enemy's fire. Using their dual .30 caliber equipped LCP as a floating machine gun nest, Munro and his shipmates fought Japanese machine gunners at close range and orchestrated the evacuation of the troops.

In the span of only 30 minutes, all the Marines except the dead were safely loaded into the waiting NOB boats. The flotilla of landing craft began the four-mile return trip to NOB Cactus, but Evans and Munro remained behind to assist one of the Navy Landing Craft, Tanks (LCTs) grounded on the beach. While they helped pull the LCT off the beach, the Japanese set-up a machine gun on the beach and raked Munro's LCP. The enemy fusillade wounded the entire crew except Evans. Bennett suffered non-fatal wounds from the incoming rounds and later received the Navy Cross Medal for his role in the action. Directing the landing craft and manning his air-cooled .30 caliber Lewis machine gun, Munro suffered a serious neck wound as had Roberts in the initial landings.

Image of SM1 Douglas Munro, hero of Point Cruz and the only Medal of Honor recipient in the Coast Guard history. Coast Guard Collection.Munro's boats had evacuated all survivors of Puller's battalion, including 25 wounded. Unfortunately, Munro had taken a bullet to the neck at the base of his skull. Evans failed to realize his friend's dire situation until another man motioned him forward to the bow, where Munro lay slumped down in his forward gun position.

Evans knelt down beside Munro, who asked, “Did we get them all off?”

Evans later recounted Munro's final moment: “And seeing my affirmative nod, he smiled with that smile I knew and liked so well, and then he was gone.”

Doug Munro (left) had laid down his life to ensure the survival of Puller's battalion. On the recommendation of Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Munro posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the only one ever awarded to a Coast Guardsman. In the condolence letter to Munro's parents, Dexter referred to his fallen friend as “one of my boys.” Later in the letter, he wrote that “[Munro's] loss has left a very decided space in which I feel will never be filled .”

By November 1942, the first wave of Marines and Coast Guardsmen had served on Guadalcanal for three months. Hundreds of Americans had made the ultimate sacrifice, including Munro and several other Coast Guardsmen. Thousands were also lost to disease and those who managed to survive were mere shadows of their former selves. Men who had arrived on the Canal at an average weight had lost 30 or more pounds due to sleep deprivation, overexertion, a steady diet of C-rations and mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria. They were no longer fit for duty and rotated off the line or back to the states for rehabilitation.

Among the NOB men coming off the island were Dexter and Evans. Dexter had earned the respect and admiration of those who served under him at NOB Cactus. Some of his men broke down and cried when he informed the crew he was heading home. He received a promotion in rank and the Navy awarded him the Silver Star Medal for his command of NOB Cactus. His medal citation aptly states, “By his courage in the face of great hardship and danger, he set an example which was an inspiration to all who served with him.” Dexter later completed a career in the Coast Guard and retired as a rear admiral.

Ray Evans receiving his Navy Cross Medal for action seen at Point Cruz. Evans had already received a battlefield advancement and later received an officer’s commission. Coast Guard Collection.Before rotating back to the states, Evans flew from Guadalcanal to Noumea, New Caledonia, for an audience with Vice Adm. Halsey. While aboard Halsey's flagship, USS Argonne, Evans received a field promotion from signalman first class to chief petty officer. In early 1943, he received the Navy Cross Medal for the Point Cruz evacuation and he later received an officer's commission. His Navy Cross citation concludes, “By his great personal valor, skill and outstanding devotion to duty in the face of grave danger, he contributed directly to the success of his mission by saving the lives of many who otherwise might have perished.”

Before redeploying, both he and Dexter paid their respects to Munro at Guadalcanal's military cemetery, hallowed ground the Americans had cleared of the jungle and the Japanese.

By December 1942, the defeat of Japanese forces on the Canal appeared likely. U.S. Army Gen. Alexander Patch relieved Marine Gen. Vandergrift and President Franklin Roosevelt awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) to the battered First Marine Division. The “First Marine Division, Reinforced” received the award and the word “Reinforced” honored support units, such as NOB Cactus and its men. In addition to the PUC, which equates to the Navy Cross Medal on an individual basis, various NOB Cactus crewmembers received further honors and recognitions. These included the Purple Heart Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Silver Star Medal, Navy Cross Medal, as well as Munro's posthumous Medal of Honor. Like Roberts, Evans and Munro would become namesakes for U.S. military vessels and Coast Guard installations, including the Douglas A. Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building in Washington, D.C.

Coast Guard personnel serving on Guadalcanal received dozens of medals for heroism, making the campaign one of the most honored Coast Guard combat operations in service history.

Cover of the March 1943 Coast Guard Magazine reads: “Jap Trophy-Comdr. Dwight Dexter, USCG, displays autographed flag taken from Jap soldier.” (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy image)
Cover of the March 1943 Coast Guard Magazine reads: “Jap Trophy-Comdr. Dwight Dexter, USCG, displays autographed flag taken from Jap soldier.” (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy image)

In February 1943, Army Gen. Patch declared Guadalcanal secured of all Japanese military forces. After that, the Allies remained on the offensive for the rest of the Pacific War and the Japanese fought a lengthy retreat back to their home islands. Doug Munro, Ray Evans, Dwight Dexter and their NOB Cactus shipmates were all members of the long blue line and lived up to the Service's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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