FORT BRAGG, N.C. - For most sergeants major, becoming the command sergeant major of a corps is the culmination of their careers. For retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth "Rock" Merritt, he not only helped create the job of the XVIII Airborne Corps command sergeant major, he held the position twice.
Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, then 18-year-old Merritt sought his discharge from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created to help unemployed young men find work as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. From there he went to work helping build Camp Gruber, Okla. and Camp Hale, Colo. He then went to work in a naval shipyard in California. In October 1942, Merritt decided to join the military.
"I told my cousin, they're going to draft us anyway and then they'll send us wherever they want. I'm going to beat them to it and volunteer, so I can pick what I do," Merritt said.
His original plan was to join the Marines because he liked their uniforms. While waiting to talk with a Marine recruiter, he looked up and saw a poster on the wall depicting a paratrooper.
"I was standing there in that recruiting station and saw that picture of a paratrooper under the canopy with a Thompson sub-machine gun resting on top of his reserve. At the bottom of the poster it said, 'are you man enough to fill these boots'' Well, between that and the $50 a month in jump pay, I told the recruiter to sign me up," he said.
Merritt said he only weighed 120-pounds at the time and the recruiter told him he wasn't going to make it. He did and was sent to Camp Blanding, Fla. on Oct. 19, 1942. The next day, he and the other recruits sent to Camp Blanding were marched down to headquarters.
"Nobody really knew how to march yet, except me because I'd learned it when I worked with the CCC. They came out and read the orders from the War Department saying that we were now part of the newly activated 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment," recalled Merritt.
The Warner, Okla. native spent the next three years fighting with his brothers in the 508th. He jumped as part of Operation Market Garden and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. As he sat in his Fayetteville home, now 87 years old, Merritt said he knew the battle that people wanted to hear most about.
"Want me to tell you a little bit about Normandy'," Merritt asked as he looked up with a smile.
The 508th PIR had been training for an airborne operation since their arrival in theater. For about 17 weeks, the paratroopers conducted exercises and night jumps while temporarily residing in Ireland and near Nottingham, England. On June 5, 1944, the 2,056 officers and Soldiers of the 508th PIR loaded up and prepared to jump into France. From midnight to 3 a.m. the paratroopers descended on Normandy.
"It must have been an awful sight to see that many planes coming in," said Merritt. "It took 120 C-47s to drop our regiment that night. Today it could be done by 13 C-17s."
Few of the paratroopers actually landed at their objective and units were scattered. Merritt said that five days later he learned devastating news about his chain of command.
"The most important thing I recall about Normandy is that my entire chain of command was wiped out. I remember every single one of their names - Lt. Col. Batcheller, our battalion commander; Capt. Ruddy, the company commander; Lieutenant Snee, the assistant platoon leader, First Sergeant "Snuffy" Smith; and my platoon sergeant, Alva Carpenter," he said. "That's not a very good morale booster for a 20-year-old corporal who's a squad leader."
The objectives, Merritt said, blended together - "one hill, one river, one bridge." On July 3, the 1st Battalion, 508th PIR was ordered to hold base hill 131 until "the last man fell." He was now a buck sergeant and said he was determined to keep as many of his men alive as possible. He went to the Company C first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Leonard Funk, who later received the Medal of Honor, and got a box of grenades. Funk's company had suffered heavy losses, with only 37 men left from the original 198.
""I'll never forget that day," said Merritt. "It was raining and there was a loudspeaker nearby blaring German propaganda. There was a machine gun firing at us all the time. I told the Alpha Company platoon leader 'I'm going out there to knock out that damn machine gun.' I went up there and knocked that gun out. Later, General Ridgway awarded me the Silver Star for that."
On July 13, Merritt and his fellow paratroopers returned to England. Of the 2,056 who went in, only 900 came out after just six weeks of fighting.
"We didn't get any replacements while we were in Normandy. When we came out, they gave us seven days of leave in country and then we started training again for Operation Market Garden."
When the war ended, the men of the 508th took over the task of guarding Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters. Merritt and 90 other men reenlisted. He said his wife was not thrilled with his decision.
"My reenlistment didn't go over too good with my wife, Sally. She didn't like that all," he said. He and Sally had married in 1943, shortly after he joined the service. That reenlistment was the first of many, as Merritt continued to serve for 35 years. Of those 35 years, he spent 31 on jump status.
He served in many capacities during his career, spending the majority of his time stateside at Fort Bragg with various units in the 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps. Merritt hit all the "hot spots" overseas, including Korea, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. During his two stints as the XVIII Airborne Corps sergeant major, he served under seven corps commanders. At his change of command, XVIII Abn. Corps commander Lt. Gen. Hank "Two-Gun" Emerson presented one of his "two guns," .357 Magnum pistols, to Merritt, whom he called his right hand.
Merritt said he is now proud to call Fayetteville his home.
He remains active in the Fort Bragg community and will tell anyone who asks that the 508th PIR is the best unit in the Army.