Historians have written about Army generals George Patton and Colin Powell.
Kenneth “Rock” Merritt served with them.
Merritt began his Army career as a private in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He said he served in Normandy as squad leader, Holland as section leader and the Battle of the Bulge as a platoon sergeant.
His World War II stories read like history books. Merritt said he heard a conversation between then Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Forces commander, and Gen. Omar Bradley about Gen. George Patton.
“He (Eisenhower) said, ‘Brad, you’re the only one that can control General Patton’ ... But, you had to give him credit. That damn Patton, I mean, he was a fighter. He could take some ground.”
Merritt’s unit, the 508th, was supposed to jump before Patton’s unit into Belgium, but Merritt said Patton, who didn’t want the assistance, called Eisenhower to complain.
According to Merritt, “Patton said, ‘I’m up here on the drop zone where you’re supposed to drop the 82nd Airborne Division, what do you want me to do, collapse their chutes?’ So, they called it off twice. We never did jump in front of him. Nobody was going to jump in front of Patton and say, Airborne had to rescue George Patton’s Third Army.”
Merritt was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
Last month he went to Belgium where he said he found the foxhole he dug 72 years ago. It was a machine-gun position, two-man foxhole.
“I hadn’t been back to follow (trace) my steps in the Battle of the Bulge, so I’d figured I’d better do it while I was able,” said Merritt, 93. “I’d visited Normandy already, and Nijmegen, Holland, Operation Market Garden … I’m glad I went. I’ve covered them all now.”
At a commemoration ceremony in France, in 2014, President Barack Obama spoke of Merritt and the service of D-Day veterans.
“Think of Rock Merritt, who saw a recruitment poster asking him if he was man enough to be a paratrooper — so he signed up on the spot. And that decision landed him here on D-Day with the 508th Regiment, a unit that would suffer heavy casualties. And 70 years later, it’s said that all across Fort Bragg, they know Rock — not just for his exploits on D-Day, or his 35 years in the Army, but because 91-year-old Rock Merritt still spends his time speaking to the young men and women of today’s Army and still bleeds ‘O.D.’ Green” for his 82nd Airborne,” said the president in his speech.
Merritt dined with Obama and was presented a challenge coin after the ceremony.
“It just didn’t dawn on me I was talking to the president of the United States,” said Merritt, who told him, “Mr. President, you made an old Soldier proud.
‘No Rock, you made a young president proud,’” Merritt said the president told him.
In addition to all the medals, accolades and achievements, Merritt can add being the only Soldier to twice serve as XVIII Abn. Corps command sergeant major, (from 1964 to 1966 and from 1973 to 1977) to his long list of accomplishments.
“Now, they assign command sergeants major about the same way they assign generals. So, that will never happen again,” he explained.
One of the changes he made under his watch included allowing noncommissioned officers to serve as safety officers at jump zones. Merritt also changed the protocol for firing on ranges.
“We’re going to fire for a record. You couldn’t fire until an officer came out and put the red flag up.”
He asked the general to change that.
“So, you didn’t have to wait for a range control officer to come out and put the red flag up. A senior NCO could do it,” he said.
The responsibility had previously belonged to officers. Additionally, Merritt said he set it up so that the first NCO Academy commandant could be a sergeant major in the Army, in 1974.
Merritt said he is most proud of the fact that the Braxton Bragg Chapter was the largest in the world when he was corps command sergeant major.
When Hank “Gunfighter” Emerson, a three star general, retired at Fort Bragg, Merritt said Emerson gave him his Magnum .357, though Colin Powell was then, serving as commander of troops.
“I was his right-hand man ... I’m on Colin Powell’s staff,” Merritt said. “In the meantime, we’ve got all these troops standing at parade (rest).”
In an Army career that spanned more than three decades, Merritt said he earned jump pay all but four years. When he volunteered after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, jump pay was $55 dollars and basic pay was $50.
“That was pretty good for 1942,” Merritt said. “When the war ended, they sent me here and I joined the 82nd Airborne Division and I’ve seen Fayetteville come a long ways. I’ve seen it improve for the last 70 years, so I think its tops now.”
Like any retired command sergeant major, Merritt still keeps up with Army business.
“In today’s armed forces, I think we’re being led by the greatest trained, greatest educated, greatest equipment that our officers and noncommissioned officers have ever had. Look at what expert equipment we’ve got. Tanks that got radar on it. When you lay one on, it’s going to hit something. We’ve got atomic bombs, which we didn’t have when they bombed Pearl Harbor.”
And he approves of women in combat.
“I’ve seen some women in my 36 years in the Army that probably could stand up physically and mentally in combat better than the male could. Some of them, I’m not saying all of them, but some of them ... they’re good.”
Merritt believes that the mandatory draft should be reinstated. There were more troops serving when Pearl Harbor was bombed than there are now, he explained. Then, armed forces strength was 1.4 million as compared to 1.2 million today.
“I don’t think we should’ve have went all-volunteer. You had to live to see what happened on Dec. 8, 1941, when we declared war on Japan. The recruiting stations were not prepared for what was going to happen next. We had people 65 and 70 years old wanting to get in the armed forces. That went on for weeks, until we got 16.2 million men and women in uniform in World War II. Today, 15.3 million of those 16.2 million have passed on, leaving us with less than a million World War II veterans, and they’re dying at a rate of 500 a day. If you do the math, World War II guys like me, they ain’t going to be around too much longer,” said Merritt.
“When the war ended, it was probably 50 or 60 percent of Congress or Senate were ex-service people. Now, we don’t even have one percent up there who serve now. I think it’s a big mistake for not having the draft. If a guy gets out of high school and wants to go to college, let him go. If he doesn’t want to go, let him serve.”
The honors heaped on Merritt seem to keep coming. He recently received the Dough Boy Award, presented to those who have made outstanding contributions to the U.S. Army Infantry.
“I feel real honored and humbled,” said Merritt, who also served as Grand Marshal of the Veterans Day Parade, in Fayetteville.
“It was great; a nice day for it and everything, so I felt good.”
This year, on Dec. 7, the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Merritt will sign prints of a painting by James Dietz, a military artist who will pay tribute to the service of the men of the 508th PIR, said Capt. Benjamin Reed, battalion chaplain. The unveiling will be held at 9 a.m. at the Hall of Heroes.
Meanwhile, Merritt, who lost his wife to cancer 12 years ago, said he enjoys spending time with Family — two sons, a daughter and 14 grand- and great-grandchildren.
He enjoys the company of neighbors, like Luis Gutierrez, also a retired command sergeant major, who has known Merritt more than 30 years.
“I’m his senior enlisted aide, “Gutierrez said. “Actually, he’s like the dad I never had. My dad was killed in World War II.”
Merritt lauds the service of service members today and said America owes them a debt.
“We’ve had our freedom for 240 years. Who do we owe it to? We owe it to millions and millions of Americans that gave it all for our freedom and even today, we owe it to them. They’re over there fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Merritt said.