That time an admiral used his own Navy Cross to decorate a hero

Coast Guard Signalman Ray Evans was a legend in World War II who drew machine gun fire from Japanese soldiers while pulling Chesty Puller’s Marines out of a hairy situation on Guadalcanal in 1942. The Navy awarded him a Navy Cross, but Vice Adm. Joseph Stika had no medal to hand to Evans, so he took off his own Navy Cross and pinned it on Evans.

For Stika, the groundwork was laid in 1918 when he was serving near a munitions yard in Morgan, New Jersey. The Gillespie Ammunitions Yard suffered a series of explosions on Oct. 4 that continued for two days.

Shattered cars sit near the site of the T.A. Gillespie Plant explosion in 1918. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Shattered cars sit near the site of the T.A. Gillespie Plant explosion in 1918. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

It was one of the largest ordnance activities in America at the time, handling 10 percent of all artillery shells used by American forces at the Western front. When the first explosions started, they triggered a chain reaction that turned the entire area into a Hellscape, detonating more explosives and spreading unexploded ordnance across the surrounding area.

Stika, then a Coast Guard first lieutenant (which the Coast Guard used to have), led a team of five Coast Guardsmen and two soldiers into the explosions to secure and remove ordnance before it could go off. For two days, they repaired rail lines and drove trains out of the blaze, sometimes while the trains themselves were on fire or within burning areas.

Soldier feeds orphans created during the T.A. Gillespie Plant explosion in 1918.

Soldier feeds orphans created during the T.A. Gillespie Plant explosion in 1918. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Twelve members of the Coast Guard, including Stika, were awarded Navy Crosses for their actions that October.

Stika rose through the ranks during the interwar period and was serving as a vice admiral in 1942 when Evans and Coast Guard Signalman Douglas Munro were called to service at Guadalcanal. The two enlisted men had joined at the same recruiting station on the same day and been assigned to the same cutter, leading to a deep friendship.

The two were split up for different missions but were reunited at Guadalcanal where their orders intersected. On the island, they were asked by a Marine Corps major to take part in a mission planned by then-Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.

Coast Guardsmen unload supplies at Guadalcanal in support of US Marine Corps

Coast Guardsmen and sailors unload supplies at Guadalcanal in support of the U.S. Marine Corps. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Marines had been trying to get across the Matanikau River for some time with no success. Puller wanted to try an amphibious assault that would deliver Marines onto a beachhead behind the river. These Marines would then clear the Japanese and allow their compatriots to cross.

Munro and Evans agreed, and the initial landings went well. But as the Coast Guardsmen were headed back to base, they learned that the Marines had been ambushed soon after the boats left, and they desperately needed extraction.

US troops of 163rd Infantry Regiment Higgins Boats Waske Island New Guinea

American troops of the 163rd Infantry Regiment, hit the beach from Higgins boats like those piloted by Chief Signalmen Ray Evans and Douglas Munro at Guadalcanal. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Puller rushed to Navy ships in the ocean to direct artillery fire in support of his men, and the Coast Guardsmen were sent back to pull out the Marines. Evans and Munro volunteered to stay back from the beach and lay heavy fire on the Japanese, drawing their attention while the rest of the flotilla loaded up the Marines.

The extraction went well and the boats turned to head back to base, but one of the boats became stuck on a nearby beach. Munro and Evans towed the boat off the sand, but a Japanese machine gunner spotted them and opened fire as they did so.

Coast Guard painting of Douglas Munro and Raymond Evans at battle of guadalcanal

(Painting: U.S. Coast Guard)

Munro was hit in the head. He would die later that day and become the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Evans was put in for the Navy Cross. He only found out about the award when he made it back to Alameda, California, and was ordered to the ceremony. But when he arrived, something unexpected happened.

The orders for the award had come without a physical medal. So, Stika removed his own Navy Cross, earned more than 20 years before in the munitions explosions, and placed the medal on Evans for his actions on Guadalcanal.

The two men became friends and Evans routinely visited Stika after the older man’s retirement. Evans would go on to be a Coast Guard commander before retiring from the service.

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