In the skies over France as part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt’s plane got lost.
Merritt was a corporal in 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment at the time. Between midnight and 3 a.m., more than 800 planes carried in excess of 2,000 British and American Soldiers over Normandy to launch the assault on the German Army.
The planes were divided into battalions of 40 with radar in only the lead plane. As Merritt’s plane approached Normandy’s beaches, the lead plane banked to avoid enemy fire losing the 39 planes following it.
“My jumpmaster went up to see the pilot, and the pilot said ‘I’m lost. I can’t find your drop zone,’” Merritt said. “(My jumpmaster) said, ‘Are you over France? … I’m going back to the door. When I get back, give me the green light and we’re going to jump.’ Well, we did jump.”
Merritt’s jump into Normandy was one of the many stories he told to U.S. Military Academy cadets during a lecture Feb. 11. In World War II, Merritt, who retired from the Army in 1975, fought on D-Day, in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. He also fought in Korea and Vietnam during his Army career.
“You grow up hearing stories about guys like Command Sgt. Maj. Rock, it’s like getting to meet your heroes,” Class of 2021 Cadet Brandon Akuszewski said. “It’s always crazy to hear from individuals who have done something compared to when you read about it in a book where you lose that human element. I could read a textbook all day and see what words say about individuals like Command Sgt. Maj. Rock, but then to actually hear it and hear the passion behind it and hear the words, it’s a whole other level.”
Merritt, 96, told cadets his initial plan was to join the Marines because he liked their uniform. On his way to enlist, he saw a poster highlighting Army paratroopers and ran into an Army recruiter who promised him $50 a month for his service. He shipped out the next day to begin training.
That decision in October 1942 began a 33-year career in the Army and a lifetime of service to the nation.
“It is honestly inspiring,” Class of 2021 Cadet Abigail Peterson said. “There are not many opportunities you can get to actually speak to someone who’s been there. You hear all these stories, but never hear it firsthand … He’s lived through so much and seen so much, he can give out some real wisdom. I’m really glad West Point gave us this opportunity.”
Merritt concluded his talk to cadets by recapping the time he had the chance to meet retired Gen. Omar Bradley, USMA Class of 1915. It was a meeting Merritt said he had hoped to have for more than 30 years. It finally came to fruition in 1975, only months before he retired, after Bradley saw his fourragère with cords marking Merritt’s jumps into Normandy while at the Association of the Army Convention in Washington D.C.
“Gen. Bradley is known to all of us as a Soldier’s Soldier,” Merritt said. “He loved the infantry, the company commander, the platoon leader, platoon sergeant, but most of all he loved the squad leaders. I wanted to talk to him and shake his hand.”
Merritt said Bradley thanked him for his work as a squad leader and challenged him to continue to make a difference after retiring. Merritt chose to continue living near Fort Bragg in North Carolina even after his career was over. During their meeting, Bradley made Merritt promise to use his leisure time to give back and help develop the next generation of squad leaders, which Merritt has been doing for the last 42 years.
Merritt’s lecture was part of the academy’s Modern War Institute’s speaker series.