WWII Raider reminisces with visiting Camp Pendleton Marines
By RALPH BARTHOLDT | Lewiston Tribune, Idaho | Published: February 15, 2017
LEWISTON, Idaho (Tribune News Service) — It was more than 70 years ago, but Ken "Mudhole" Merrill still dreams about it.
Seated in a wheelchair, wearing white shoes and slacks, aviator sunglasses and a bomber jacket with a Marine Special Operations Command spearhead insignia on a sleeve, Merrill, 92, still remembers with clarity the island campaigns of the South Pacific and his days behind enemy lines as part of Carlson's Raiders.
But it wasn't the stories that brought three Marines from Camp Pendleton's Raider battalion to Lewiston's Kindred Care facility this week to meet with Merrill. The special operations group, which keeps tabs on the vestiges of its origins - the men who founded and fought under the same banner - heard Merrill had pneumonia and asked for volunteers to visit him to keep up his spirits.
"All the Raiders wanted to come," said Merrill's son-in-law, Reid Folsom of Clarkston. "These guys were the first three volunteers."
The three visiting Marines - a captain and two sergeants, lean as oak slats, dressed in civilian khakis and polo shirts - spent a night in Lewiston taking time off their duties to be with Merrill, who is recovering after five days in intensive care.
He is glad they came.
"You guys are doing a wonderful job," Merrill told the Marines. "You're making me awful proud. I wish I could be out there with you."
Merrill was a member of the original Raiders, which formed for three years during World War II under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He's a national treasure, the Marines said - one of just a few living members of the group that despite being disbanded after the war, lived big in Marine Corps legend and in Hollywood movies.
As a tribute to the feats the Raiders accomplished as they waged a guerilla war against Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater from 1942-44, the Marines Special Operations Command two years ago reincarnated the unit as the Marine Raider Regiment with garrisons in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. Their badge contains a sky blue field with a Southern Cross constellation used for navigation in the southern hemisphere.
Much of what looms in Merrill's memory, and what he still dreams about, happened under the Southern Cross, in places like Midway Island, Makin Island and Guadalcanal when he was a 17-year-old Arizona kid who joined the Marines promising his father he would return to high school to finish his education after the war.
The Second Raider Battalion was led by then-Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and Maj. James Roosevelt, son of the president. It was Roosevelt who christened Merrill with the nickname "Mudhole," for attempting to quench his thirst by slurping water pockets while carrying his gear, ammo and a 50-caliber machine gun on long treks through the tropics.
As Merrill and the Marines exchanged war stories in front of the fire place in the Kindred Care banquet room Monday, Merrill daubbed his nose with a Kleenex and succumbed to occasional bouts of wheezing, but the rattle in his lungs didn't keep him from his memories.
At Guadalcanal the Raiders used rubber rafts to reach the beach far behind enemy lines, where they would spend 30 days conducting hit-and-run raids on the entrenched Japanese. He was 190 pounds when he landed and 140 pounds when the campaign ended, he said.
Following the tradition of that campaign, today's Raiders train for two weeks without food or sleep, doing raids night and day, the Marines said.
While battling exhaustion during an island campaign, Merrill manned the machine gun in a night battle after having gone without food or sleep for an extended period, and he fell asleep, he recounted.
"Every time I kept dozing off, I could hear my mother call to me and shake me saying, 'Kenny, it's time to get up,' " Merrill said. "I'd wake up eyeball to eyeball with a Japanese."
And he would pull the trigger.
His mother died along with his sister when Merrill was 8, but he credits her for saving his life in the Pacific campaigns.
Merrill shared another story with the Marines that drew a solemn note for a spell.
"There ain't no atheist in a foxhole," he said. "I know you know what I'm talking about."
Carlson's Raiders, he said, were rough and tough, but one thing few people knew is that they held prayer meetings, often before battle. Merrill at first did not attend, but he would pray by himself, he said, not to prevent being killed, but for bravery.
"I'd ask the Lord to make me brave like those other guys," he said. "Every time I'd go into action, I'd pee my pants."
Before long, though, the other Raiders would have to rein him in, he said.
"They would call to me, 'Mudhole, fall back, you've gone too far.' "
One of the Marines asked how long it took for him to get over his PTSD and live normally.
"Probably 20 years," he said. Returning to school after the war was extremely difficult, he said.
"I had a hell of a time going back to high school. Someone would slam a door and I would hit the deck so fast it would make your head spin."
He graduated in 1944, but the memories of his time as a Raider - more so than what he learned in school - are still with him, sharp and clear.
"I dream about it still. I'm still fighting."
The stories shared by Merrill and the small Marine Raider contingent gave the 93-year-old a morale boost, Folsom said.
"He was a little down after coming out of the hospital," Folsom said. "He's feeling good. It boosted his spirit."
Bartholdt can be contacted at email@example.com