By Chelsea J. Carter
(CNN) — Mixed in with costume jewelry and trinkets was a gold and purple heart-shaped medal bearing the image of George Washington.
A Purple Heart, Matthew Carlson thought to himself. But what was it doing at a swap meet in Glendale, Arizona, for just anyone to buy?
How much do you want for it, he asked. Forty dollars, the vendor said.
“I got $20 on me right now,” Carlson said. “I’ll give it to you right now.”
At least, the Vietnam veteran told himself, he wouldn’t have to “see it hanging on the shirt of some kid going to a rave party or something like that.”
Who did it belong to? The answer was engraved on the back of the medal: “For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott.”
But that only spawned more questions: Who was he? How did he earn the medal? And how did it end up on a table of trinkets at the Glendale Park ‘n Swap in January?
As the nation honors the service of veterans on Monday, the journey of this particular Purple Heart will unite service members and families across decades. For each, it will serve as a reminder of service, sacrifice and loss.
Searching for answers
Purple Hearts have been popping up for sale on the Internet and at flea markets in the past year, spurred by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Stolen Valor Act on the grounds of free speech. The act made it a crime to falsely claim high military honors.
As a result, the ruling also lifted a ban on the buying and selling of military decorations and medals.
Among online collectors, the medals — awarded to those killed or wounded in action — can fetch anywhere between $50 to $500.
The Pentagon does not release information about a service member or family members, citing privacy concerns.
So, for Carlson, tracking the medal’s origins would be no easy task.
The medal’s blue presentation case with its gold lettering, bearing the words “Purple Heart,” appeared to Carlson to be in fairly good condition.
Inside the box, the lining was faded and the cloth hinge was ripped. But the medal itself was in decent shape.
Carlson stored it in his bedroom for safekeeping while mulling how to go about finding Merriott or his family.
A few clues — and help from the Internet
For months, the medal sat untouched in Carlson’s suburban Phoenix home.
But it was never far from his thoughts. The 59-year-old had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He, like so many, lost friends in the war. He knew what the medal meant to the families of the fallen.
Surely, Merriott’s medal must mean something to someone, he thought. But how to find out?
“Do you know how to use the Internet to find things?” Carlson, a self-proclaimed computer illiterate, asked his son in late April.
The answer, of course: Yes.
He opened up the case to show his son, removing the medal from the box. For the first time, he noticed several pieces of paper folded tightly into the bottom of the box. One was the medal certificate, which indicated Merriott had been killed on June 19, 1944.
With a name and a date of death, an Internet search yielded a hit on a website honoring men of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II.
Carlson and his son pieced together from the website that Merriott was one of 90 men killed when a landing ship — LST 523 — struck an underwater mine just off Utah Beach in Normandy, France.
But it was the other papers — a two-page letter dated April 21, 1944 — that offered the first tangible details about Merriott.
“Dearest Mother, Dad & Sis,” it began, “Truly hope you all are doing OK. As for myself, I’m just fine.”
Carlson read the letter, and then read it again.
It didn’t offer details about the war or where the soldier was deployed. Rather it was the kind of letter that Carlson says he wrote to his own family while he was away at war.
“This was a young man trying to keep his family at peace,” Carlson said.
In the letter, Merriott told his family how he missed the “warm, good spring sunshine.” He asked after his mother, and he inquired whether his father had finished planting the corn crop.
It had been sent to an address in Stilwell, Oklahoma.
The Carlsons called a few people with the same last name in the area. Did they know where to find Merriott’s family? The answer: No.
Maybe the people behind the website knew more about Merriott, Carlson thought.
A call across the miles
The message on Jan Ross and Brad Peters’ voice mail was intriguing.
It was from Carlson’s son, who relayed the story of his father’s find at the swap meet, how he found Merriott’s name on their website and how his father wanted to give the medal to the man’s family.
Did they know anything more about the private first class? Would they speak with his father?
For nearly eight years, Ross and Peters had been detailing the stories of the men of the 300th Engineers on their website based in Erving, Massachusetts.
It’s a journey that began with a single question by Ross: What did my father do with the 300th Engineers during the war?
Her father didn’t talk about the war very much. When he died two decades earlier, Ross was left with more questions than answers about his service. So she and her husband, Peters, turned to the Internet.
Through the effort, she learned her father was a member of a four-man unit responsible for making potable water under combat conditions.
They had heard lots of stories over the years. But this story about the medal and Merriott was something different.
Peters called the elder Carlson.
No, Peters didn’t know anything more about Merriott beyond what was on the website.
But maybe one of the surviving members of the 300th — as they are known — might know more. There was an upcoming gathering of the former combat engineers, Peters said.
Can you give it to the right people, Carlson asked?
Carlson carefully packaged up the medal, the certificate and the letter, and sent it to Peters and Ross.
In the package, he included a letter of his own: “Sometimes we tend to forget the past brothers in arms, I cannot. We must remember their service with all the dignity and respect we can muster. Pfc. Merriott gave his all for our country. Can we do less?”
Finding a name
By the time the medal arrived in the mail, Peters and Ross had already been making inquiries about Merriott. They began by contacting some of the surviving members of the 300th.
They knew at least two of the men attending the reunion had survived the sinking of the LST. Did they know Merriott? The answer was no.
The couple knew one of the men was from the same area in Oklahoma — Adair County — where the letter was mailed.
Did he know of Merriott or his family? Again, no.
Peters and Ross put the story about Merriott’s medal in the 300th Engineers newsletter, which eventually caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin.
The congressman’s grandfather, Kenneth “Cowboy” Morris, was a veteran of the 300th Engineers, having served with the battalion during World War II.
Mullin and Morris, who were from Adair County, were intrigued by the story.
Together, the two men began to look for answers. They soon found Merriott’s name inscribed on the Adair County War Memorial in front of the county courthouse in Stilwell.
They also turned to the Adair County Historical Society.
With a population of about 4,000, Stilwell is the kind of place that’s big enough to offer all the amenities of a city and just small enough for families to know of one another.
Wanda Elliot at the historical society knew the name Merriott. There were a couple of families in the area with the last name. She called some of them.
Do you know of the fallen soldier? Yes. He was a distant cousin.
Did they know how to find any of the family? No.
Elliott and others at the historical society then went to the Stilwell Democrat Journal, the local newspaper. But the newspaper archives were incomplete. A fire had destroyed some of the “war years” issues, including those from the summer of 1944.
Then someone remembered a scrapbook that had been donated a few years earlier.
It had been compiled by a teenage girl, who collected newspaper clippings between 1943 and 1945 about the young men from the area who had gone off to war.
Because of age and time, the scrapbook was in fragile condition. The staff at the historical society put it in a sealed archival box, where it sat unexamined. Perhaps it offered a clue.
Putting a face to a name
The headline was brief: Missing In Action.
The face of the man in the brittle, yellowed newspaper clipping was smiling. He wore a World War II-era Army dress uniform, with the hat cocked to one side.
The article reported how the man had been missing since June 19, 1944.
It revealed that he was born on December 21, 1922. How he graduated from Stilwell High School, where he was a “prominent in all school activities, including football.”
It described how he joined the Army in February 1943. It said he was sent to Europe in December 1943, “spending his 21st birthday in England.”
“Let us all hope and pray that when the battles are all won in Germany, he will be liberated from an internment camp safe and sound thereby returning to his loved ones,” the article said.
The man in the article? Pfc. Clarence M. Merriott.
Finally, the name on the medal had a face — and a background.
Also in the scrapbook, a few pages later, the staff found another article: Merriott’s death notice.
A missing medal
Elliott and the historical society staff turned to the Internet for help, searching online genealogical records.
Merriott had a sister, Elliott and the staff discovered. But she had married and moved away even before her brother had joined the Army.
The group focused their search on Merriott’s sister, Haleen. That turned up details about her son, and that led them to a listing of a possible grandson.
A few telephone calls later, Elliott was on the phone with the grandson.
Elliott recounted to him the journey of the medal: how Carlson found it and wanted to return it to the family.
It was in that call that Elliott learned that Merriott’s sister ended up with the Purple Heart and that it eventually had been given to her son.
Then a few years ago, the medal was lost in a move, the grandson told her.
“They were very grateful it had been found, and they said that they would prefer it be placed in a museum,” Elliott said.
“They wanted people to appreciate the medal and the sacrifice it represented.”
A medal’s mettle
Peters packed the Purple Heart carefully as he and his wife prepared to make their way last month for the reunion of the 300th Engineers.
They planned to hand the medal over to Morris, who would take it to Stilwell and give it to the historical society.
Peters had never held a Purple Heart in his hands. But he knew what it signified, the ultimate sacrifice of a soldier.
It was D-Day plus 13, and the landing ship was carrying the second wave of the more than 620 men who made up the battalion as well as the supplies they would need to do their job — everything from blowing up bridges to making reconnaissance maps.
A mine explosion ripped the ship in two, according to eyewitness accounts.
Like a number of those killed aboard the LST, Merriott’s name was inscribed on the hallowed Tablets of the Missing at Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
None of the men at the reunion remembered Merriott. But that hardly mattered. He was one of them, one of the 300th Engineers.
Merriott and the medal were part of a much larger story, Peters said. “It was a very emotional moment for the people there.”
The Purple Heart was finally given to Morris, who took it back to Adair County.
The journey home
How the medal made its way from the Merriott family to a vendor hawking costume jewelry and trinkets remains a mystery.
Merriott’s medal will make one final journey on Monday, when it will be the centerpiece of a transfer ceremony hosted by Mullin. The medal will be formally presented to the county historical association.
The ceremony will begin in front of the war memorial — where Merriott’s name is engraved among the fallen — and then make its way to a case inside the historical society’s museum.
Carlson has thought a lot about the fallen soldier as new details came to light.
He plans to be there for the ceremony. So, too, will Elliott and Morris.
All will honor a man they have never met but have come to know through the journey of a Purple Heart.
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