'I was there': 18th Airborne Corps celebrates 75 years of history
By RACHAEL RILEY | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: August 22, 2019
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — From the beginning of the 18th Airborne Corps, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Rock Merritt was there.
That was the message that Merritt, 96, who was the Corps' first command sergeant major, shared during a 75th anniversary celebration held Thursday at Fort Bragg.
"He is an icon for the airborne and he's an icon for the 18th Airborne Corps," said Maj. Gen. Brian McKiernan, who introduced Merritt at Thursday's ceremony.
The Corps' history dates to Aug. 25, 1944, when the 18th Corps was redesignated as the 18th Airborne Corps and given the mission to coordinate all American units under the command of the First Allied Airborne Army.
"I was there in August 1944 in the European theater of operations when they activated the newly airborne Army," Merritt said.
Merritt remembered that Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, who had been commander of the 82nd Airborne Corps, was selected to command the 18th Airborne Corps.
With the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division under the Corps' command, Merritt said the units trained for six weeks as replacements for Normandy and received a combat order four days after Ridgway became the 18th Airborne Corps' commander.
The 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which Merritt was part of at that time, was scheduled to jump into Belgium at 2 a.m. Sept. 2, 1944.
"The morning we were supposed to jump we got word from Gen. George S. Patton with the following message, 'I'm standing in the middle of your drop zone. What do you want me to do? Collapse these soldiers' canopies? Please advise,'" Merritt said. "Now needless to say that canceled our jump."
On Sept. 14, 1944, the Corps was alerted of its mission to participate in Operation Market Garden, a World War II operation in the Netherlands in which allied forces attempted to secure control of bridges across the Rhine River toward the German border with the Netherlands.
"Why did Operation Market Garden fail?" Merritt said. "Before I go further, I want to make it clear — I was there. The 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division accomplished every mission that they were given."
In remembering the Corps' later history, Merritt was selected as its first command sergeant major from 1962 to 1966, after the Army authorized the position for divisions and corps.
Merritt was named the Corps' command sergeant major for a second time from 1973 to 1977, after returning from Vietnam.
Merritt remembered the Corps and 82nd Airborne Division's involvement when James Meredith was integrated into the University of Mississippi.
" I was there," Merritt said. "I remember a reporter asked President Kennedy, "Sir, why do you have to send a Corps and division to Mississippi to get one man into college?' "
Merritt said Kennedy told the reporter, "When you want a job done right, you send the best you've got, and the 82nd Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps is the best."
Merritt said 36 "outstanding generals" have commanded the Corps, which he said is "the most prestigious assignment in the Army," in his opinion.
"This Corps headquarters continues to answer the call serving anywhere at any time," Merritt said, referring to the Corps headquarters' current deployment.
The Corps is currently the headquarters for Operation Inherent Resolve, which has a mission to work with partner forces to defeat the Islamic State group in designated areas of Iraq and Syria, and increase regional stability.
Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, spoke during Thursday's ceremony via teleconference from Iraq.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us," LaCamera said. "It's absolutely humbling to be part of this legacy and to continue this as we go on our next 75 years."