Operation Market Garden
Battle of the Bulge, Korea, Vietnam and the
battle that started it all for paratroopers
around the world
By Eve Meinhardt
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.
Photo by Eve Meinhardt/Paraglide
Maj. (Ret.) Kenneth “Rock” Merritt,
stands in front of a wall filled
with some of his military awards.
Merritt served for 35 years and
jumped with the 508th Parachute
Infantry Regiment during D-Day and
Operation Market Garden. He received
the Silver Star for disabling a
machine gun nest.
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
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
“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
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
“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
When the war ended, the men of the 508th
took over the task of guarding Gen. Dwight
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.
Published in Paraglide
November 11, 2010