WWII hero Kenneth 'Mudhole' Merrill passes into history
By JASON STONE | East Valley Tribune | Published: November 26, 2018
(Tribune News Service) — “Mudhole” isn’t a nickname many people would choose for themselves. But when the son of one of the most famous U.S. presidents gives it to you, you wear it proudly.
Kenneth Henry Merrill, formerly of Mesa, did that for most of his life – answering to “Mudhole” because of a joke that James Roosevelt, the eldest son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made while the two served in World War II.
More than 70 years later, family and friends are saying goodbye to the Arizona native and one of the last living original Marine Raiders.
Merrill died Nov. 12 of natural causes at 94.
“He was a fabulous storyteller,” said Kristin Folsom, Merrill’s stepdaughter. “We would go to these reunions and these new generation of raiders would flock to him. They would stand in line to talk to him because he’s a legend to them.”
So legendary, in fact, that military officials once informed him that he would be eligible to be buried at Arlington Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.
“But he refused because he wanted to be buried with his family,” said Merrill’s youngest sister, Nelda Adair, 87.
Make that a notable Arizona family. In the late 1800s, his grandfather, Philemon C. Merrill, founded the unincorporated area of St. David in the southeast corner of the state.
Kenneth Merrill was born the fifth of eight children on Sept. 12, 1924 in Hayden. His father, Roy, moved the family there during the copper boom. The Merrills then headed north to the farmlands of Gilbert when Ken was an infant before settling on Mesa.
At 7, typhoid fever killed his mother and oldest sister.
Merrill moved to Globe to live with an older brother and his wife eight years later. Two years after that, World War II changed the course of his life.
The underage Merrill, who was only a junior at Globe High School at the time, convinced his brother Chick into signing an approval for him to enlist in the U.S. Marines. Merrill promised he would return to high school once he was out of the service.
As luck would have it, Merrill was picked to become the youngest member to join the Second Raider Battalion, one of America’s first special operations forces.
The Marine Raider Battalions were activated in February 1942, a few months after the U.S. entered the war.
Then-Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, who coined the famous rallying cry “Gung Ho!” was Merrill’s commander. In fact, the exploits of “Carlson’s Raiders” were the focus of the hit 1943 war movie “Gung Ho!” starring Randolph Scott.
“He would have been one of the first Americans to hear that term or use it,” said Bill EuDaly, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Marine Raider Association.
It was during this time that Merrill got his nickname from James Roosevelt, who was second in command for the Second Raider Battalion.
Often, the group staged long walks through the tropics carrying gear, ammo and guns. But a thirsty Merrill on one journey would stop to drink water pockets in mudholes out of desperation.
Roosevelt noticed Merrill take a sip at one of the holes and yelled over to him.
“Mr. Merrill, what are you doing drinking out of the mudhole?” Roosevelt apparently yelled. “We’re going to have to call you ‘Mudhole’ now.”
Just like that, the name stuck. “He loved it,” EuDaly said. “That’s the way we all knew him.”
Nearly every major Pacific campaign from mid-1942 to the beginning of 1944 featured the Raiders. During that time, the group earned seven Congressional Medals of Honor, 141 Navy Crosses and 330 Silver Star Medals for combat operations.
In early January 1944, the Marine Corps reorganized the Raiders, but it gave birth to today’s special forces.
“Even the Navy SEALS and others look at the Raiders as the fathers of special forces,” EuDaly said. “A lot of these modern warfare operations look to those men and see them as their spiritual fathers.”
An infection in his leg from shrapnel caused Merrill to spend eight months in a hospital before he was honorably discharged. Doctors also treated him for malaria, plus he developed stomach problems and had numerous sores on his arms and feet.
He told the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune in 2008 that living for weeks on rations of rice – which he cooked in his helmet – tea, raisins and salt pork caused him to lose more than 50 pounds.
After he was discharged from the hospital, Merrill had trouble assimilating back into society in the initial postwar years.
First, when he tried to return to Globe to fulfill the promise to his brother and father that he would finish school after the war, he wasn’t allowed back. “They wouldn’t let him come back to that school because they were trained killers,” Adair said.
Merrill ultimately finished school in 1944, but he said it took a good 20 years for him to get over the trauma of the war.
While trying to normalize, Merrill began speaking and writing about his war experiences and the trouble with his high school education. That brought him some low-level fame across the country in the post-war years.
Merrill turned out to be a stellar recruiting tool for the Marines. EuDaly said Merrill would be sent out on recruiting tours at factories and schools to find the next crop of cadets.
In his final years, he gained fame among the Raiders that came after him.
He was married four times but was widowed each time. His first wife, Elaine, drowned, while the other three died of cancer. He had three children with Elaine, and one of them, Clara Lynn Linn, is still living in Reno, Nevada.
“He was a lot of fun to be around,” Adair said. “Definitely a lot of fun. He was always teasing. I was always his baby sister.”
©2018 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)
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