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Michigan's 1st Eagle Scout, war hero honored 100 years after death

Capt. Merritt Lamb, a regimental intelligence officer in the 125th Infantry, was killed in action August 1918.

U.S. ARMY VIA NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By BEN SOLIS | Muskegon Chronicle, Mich. | Published: August 29, 2018

MUSKEGON, MI (Tribune News Service) — Merritt Lamb was many things: a poet, beloved Boy Scouts of America leader, Eagle Scout and a venerable hero who died behind enemy lines during World War I.

But most of all, he was a proud champion for the city of Muskegon, and a household name for those who are privy to the city's history.

On Tuesday, Lamb, who died in 1918 at the age of 26, was honored for his bravery and his many contributions to Muskegon in a small ceremony at Hackley Park. The day marked the 100th anniversary of his death in northern France, where he was killed surveilling a German-occupied town as an intelligence officer during WWI.

The poet-soldier also helped organize some of the first West Michigan Boy Scout troops, including the first Muskegon troop in 1912, according to information shared at the ceremony. Before his death, he was named Michigan's first Eagle Scout and the 13th Eagle Scout in the nation.

Around noon, members of the Boy Scouts and the American Legion Post 9 gathered near a longstanding memorial plaque dedicated to Lamb at the west end of Hackley Park. The ceremony was organized by Dave Paulson, a Scout leader with Muskegon's Troop 1053.

There, the cadre of Scouts and veterans retold stories of Lamb's life -- of his roots in Rockford and his love of Muskegon; of his time in the war and the heroic circumstances in which he died.

The ceremony ended with a three-volley salute to Lamb from the honor guard of American Legion Post 9, an organization which bears Lamb's name.

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Lamb's story reads like a lost American tall tale, or a missing page from Daniel Wallace's novel "Big Fish." It is a lesson in bravery and perseverance, not just for Scouts, but for anyone who believes one person can make a difference.

According to legend, Lamb grew up in Rockford on a farm with several siblings in a family of "Puritan stock." It was there that he learned the value of hard work and dedication, all while forging an affinity for nature.

Lamb would turn his love of the outdoors into poems that would later be published in his book of essays titled, "My Scout, and Other Poems." One of those poems is titled "Muskegon, My Muskegon."

During his youth, he joined the Boys' Brigade, an organization that loosely resembled the Boy Scouts before it was founded in 1910. As a teenager, Lamb would tinker with fledgling electronics, devising makeshift wireless telemetry systems that caught the awe of his friends and family.

His proficiency in that field led to a job with a local railroad company while he continued his love of scouting.

At the age of 18, Lamb led a coup of sorts, convincing his compatriots in the Boys' Brigade to join the budding Boy Scouts of America instead. Lamb helped found the Rockford Troop 1, and later, Muskegon Troop 1.

In 1910, he was named an Eagle Scout, achieving the group's highest honor. Three years later, Lamb received the BSA Bronze Cross for Lifesaving for his rescue of a drowning Scout in his care at a troop outing. The boy, Loyal Plough, would later become a detective sergeant with the Muskegon Police Department.

Lamb wrote later that he had been presented with a choice as he watched his brethren struggle in the water - a choice that he would later face on the battlefield.

"Inside me was a battle of two great instincts," Lamb wrote the day after the incident. "One was of peace and self-preservation. The other was a man with a conviction that he was his brother's keeper."

Lamb did all this while serving in the National Guard starting in 1910 and was soon promoted to the rank of corporal, then second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Mexican border to fight in the failed Pancho Villa Expedition led by U.S. Gen. John Pershing.

Lamb formed a Scout troop during his time in Texas, too.

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With the United States' entry into the Great War, Lamb helped train soldiers in first aid and woodworking, receiving yet another commendation for his service. He was promoted one last time to the rank of captain and was deployed to northern France in 1917.

During the Battle of Juvigny, Lamb was on a mission to surveil a town held by the German army. Lamb was working off information that the Germans had retreated. When he arrived, he saw that the Germans were not only still there, but gaining reinforcements.

On his journey back, Lamb was killed by artillery fire, but his information made it back to his unit, saving hundreds of lives in the process.

By all accounts, Lamb's abilities were instinctive to his character, and that instinct vexed him to write one final letter to his Muskegon troop just 10 days before he was killed. The letter was published in the Muskegon Chronicle.

A portion of his message recalled the Scouts' guiding principles, and how they helped sharpen his grit.

"The campaign in which we are now engaged has proven to me and proven to many others interested in the subject the tremendous importance of the training which you, as scouts, are receiving," Lamb wrote. "You are learning ... things which of necessity the modern soldier must be able to do if he is to live and progress. You are being guided in your lives by the greatest moral code that was ever written, the Scout Oath and Scout Law.

"That oath and those laws were not the creation of one man," he continued. "They were moral principles which have evolved themselves in the progress of civilization ... You must make that oath and those laws a part of your daily life.

"That is you must not only know them by heart, but you must also know them in your soul."

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Laura Fitzpatrick, community health improvement manager with the Mercy Health Project, said Lamb's words have special meaning for her family. Fitzpatrick's sons belong to Muskegon's Troop 1053, a group that would have not been possible without Lamb's influence.

She called him a "rock star" in the realm of scouting, and a prime role model for Millennials and Generation Z because of all that he accomplished at such a young age.

"If you look at some of the world's best leaders, many of them were around Merritt Lamb's age," Fitzpatrick said. "Our Founding Fathers were 18 to 25 years old when they (signed the Declaration of Independence). I don't think a lot of people realize that.

"I believe in legacies, even if they were from men who lived 100 years ago. (Lamb's legacy) is an important legacy to teach these growing leaders of tomorrow."

©2018 Muskegon Chronicle, Mich.
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