Major Gen. Lewie Griffith Merritt, USMC, a native of Ridge Springs, South Carolina, was born on June 26, 1897. In 1912, at age 16, he entered the Citadel, the Military College Of South Carolina in Charleston. Merritt, known by his friends as “Griff” was an outstanding cadet. According to the 1917 sphinx (the college yearbook), Merritt became an accomplished orator and expert debater as president of the Citadel debate team. It also stated: “here we find a man who has been successful in every phase of cadet life. Fighting always for what he considers the right, he has won a high place in the regard of each and every man in the Corps.” Including Merritt, thirteen of 33 members (39%) of the Citadel’s class of 1917 were commissioned in the marine corps, the highest percentage, of any college in the nation. Upon graduation in 1917, Merritt, who was only 19 years of age, was commissioned second lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps.
Second lieutenant Merritt completed infantry school at Parris Island and then served a combat tour in the Dominican Republic. His next assignment was to a combat unit in the American Expeditionary Force in France where he was one of the famous Marine Corps “Devil Dogs” during World War I.
In 1920, Capt. Merritt was hand-picked to serve on the staff of marine commandant, Gen. John Lejeune. This tour was followed by sea duty as commander of the Marine detachment on the battleship USS New Mexico. As a marine infantry officer, Merritt became interested in Marine aviation. Marine aviation was in its infancy, but as an infantry officer, Merritt recognized its potential to support Marine Corps operations ashore and operations on land. Captain Merritt reported to Pensacola, Fl. in 1923 and was designated a naval aviator in January, 1924.
A highly skilled naval aviator, Merritt was one of the first Marine flyers to become qualified in aircraft carrier landings. He is credited with developing tactics that integrated Marine air power into Marine combat doctrine. He is also credited with developing the art of dive bombing and the concept of close air support for the Marine Corps. He earned a law degree from George Washington University in 1928 and continued to serve in command positions at the squadron, group, and wing level. Merritt was one of the first Marine Corps aviators to graduate from the world’s first professional development school for military aviators, the Army Air Corps Tactical School. According to the U.S. Congressional record, dated April 23, 1974, Merritt was a “key figure” in the development and implementation of new airpower tactics such as dive bombing and close air support. He was one of the architects of the new “Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Team” and became a staunch advocate for the use of Marine air power.
In December 1941, Col Merritt was serving as commander, air, fleet Marine Force Pacific and shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack was posted to London as air attaché at the US Embassy. He was promoted to brigadier general in January, 1942 and was soon detailed to North Africa to serve as a laison to the Royal Air Force in order to study allied air tactics for implementation into Marine doctrine. On January 7, 1941 he became the first us military member shot down in the European theater when the Royal Air Force bomber he was aboard was brought down by German anti-aircraft fire near Halfya pass in Egypt. Merritt and his crew were rescued when a British armored unit made a daring dash deep through enemy lines to rescue them under intense enemy fire.
General Merritt was next posted to the central pacific and took command of the 4th Marine Air Wing which supported landings at Tarawa and Kwajalein, he was then reassigned to command the 1st Marine Air Wing and served as commander aircraft, Northern Solomons during operations against New Ireland, New Britain and Bougainville leading allied air attacks which successfully destroyed much of the enemy’s capabilities and will to fight. General Merritt was the only Marine Corps aviator to serve in both the European and Pacific theaters.
After the war he was handpicked by U.S. President Harry Truman to head the strategic bombing survey, he retired in 1947. After his retirement from the Marine Corps, Gen. Merritt was an attorney in Columbia, SC until 1949 when he was appointed director of the state legislative council by Governor Strom Thurmond. In 1954 he was campaign manager for lieutenant governor George Timmerman in his successful run for governor of the state of South Carolina.
General Merritt, a pioneer in Marine Corps aviation, was recognized for his extraordinary military achievements and was awarded an honorary doctorate in military science by Gen. Mark Wayne Clark, president, the Citadel, in 1963. General Merritt died in San Antonio, Texas on march 24, 1974 after a long illness. On September 15, 1975, headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps designated Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort as Merritt Field in his honor. General Merritt and his wife Gracie are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
THIS MEMORIAL WAS PRESENTED TO MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, MERRITT FIELD, BY THE CITADEL HISTORICAL SOCIETY, BEAUFORT CITADEL CLUB, AND CITADEL MARINE CORPS ALUMNI.