John O. Merrill
559th Bomb Squadron, 387th Bomb Group
Citation to Accompany
First Lieutenant John O. Merrill distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as B-26 Pilot, 387th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force, Mayen, Germany, on 24 February 1945. On that date, while flying the lead formation with three aircraft at an altitude of approximately 9,000 feet, his plane sustained a direct enemy antiaircraft hit. The right engine and wing caught fire, crippling his aircraft Undaunted by the impending crash or explosion and the burning and badly crippled state of his plane, Lieutenant Merrill retained his composure and continued to operate the remaining controls of his plane with such skill and efficiency that he succeeded in holding the aircraft on a level keel. Although rapidly losing speed and altitude, he completed the bomb run, ensuring his bombs were released on target He then gave orders to his crew members to bail out. He continued to control the position of the aircraft in order to permit crew members to save their own lives, with total disregard for his own safety. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Merrill reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army Air Corps.
Presentation by John Kern:
"Thank you, Elizabeth. I am honored and very pleased to be here today.
I have known John Merrill for about 3 years. We met through the walking group at the San Francisco Yacht Club. Each morning we meet at the club, get a little exercise, drink some coffee and talk about the news of the day and usually a variety of other things. It took only a few days of knowing John before I realized I was in the presence of a special man. I learned that he had been a senior partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of the country's most prestigious architectural firms. Almost every major city in the country has a landmark building or a corporate campus or a sport stadium or an airport terminal that was designed by his firm. John has had a very special career in the field of architecture. But we're not here today to honor John for his civilian achievements. Today, we are honoring John for a completely different career at a much earlier time in his life - his military career. More specifically, we're here to honor John for his heroic actions on a particular day in his military career. Let me take you on a brief verbal tour through John's military life.
In 1942, at just 19 years old and during his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, John enlisted in the Army Air Corp as an aviation cadet. By October of that year, he was enrolled in preflight school at Santa Ana California. Preflight, as the name implies has very little to do with airplanes. Its primary focus is on the onerous task of taking a civilian kid and converting him into a military man. John made the conversion without major problems. He then began his flight training, which occurred in three specific phases at three different locations:
The first phase - Primary flight training was at Tulare Army Air Base flying the PT 17, the open cockpit Stearman.
The second phase - Basic flight training was at Merced Army Air Base flying the Vultee BT 13. A more complex aircraft with landing flaps and a constant speed propeller. I believe air to ground communication was also introduced during this period of training. The Advanced phase took place at Yuma Army Air Base. Here John flew the North American AT 6, commonly known as the Texan, the Cessna AT 17 and the Curtiss AT 9. The last two being twin engine aircraft with retractable landing gears.
Within one year, he had completed all three phases of his flight training and just 2 days before his 20th birthday, John received his Pilot's Wings and was commissioned 2nd Lt. in the Army Air Corps. At this time, John was granted a two week leave. This brand new military pilot walked into his hometown in Minnesota in a handsomely tailored and crisply pressed Army Air Corps uniform. His full head of hair neatly coiffured, the shiny gold bars on his epaulets and pilot's wings on his chest were like magnets to the young ladies in town and, instantly, John was the subject of their praise and adulation. After two wonderful weeks, a fatigued but very happy 2nd Lt. Merrill reported for duty at the Transition Training School at Mather Army Air Field, Sacramento, California. Although John had his pilot's wings, none of his previous flight training had been in warplanes. At Mather, he would apply all of his previous pilot training toward fine tuning his skills in a specific aircraft, the Mitchell B25 medium bomber. Everyone wanted to fly the B 25 and John was delighted to get the assignment. It had already contributed significantly to the war effort and was the same bomber flown by Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders in the famous attack on Tokyo in 1942.
After mastering precision control of the B25 at Mather, John was sent to Greenville, South Carolina for combat flight training in the B25. John excelled in the combat training course. As we know, the military always uses the best and brightest in any program to teach incoming trainees so, of course, John was assigned as an instructor in the combat flight training school. In this capacity, he taught many pilots the art of precision skip-bombing, low-altitude flying techniques and proper use of the 75MM canon in the nose of the B25. John became a high-time military pilot as a result of his instructor tour of duty amassing nearly 900 hours of flight time. Most combat pilots had 250 hours or less by the time they flew their first combat mission. His tour of duty as an instructor came to an end in August 1944 when John was sent to an airfield outside Paris where he was assigned to the 9th Tactical Air Force, 387th Bomb Group, 559th Bomb Squadron. Guess What? The 559th was not a B25 Squadron. They flew the B26, commonly known as the Martin Marauder, and those who flew them were called Maraudermen. The B26 was a twin engine medium bomber like the B25 but it had significantly different aerodynamic and performance characteristics. But, with all the time and experience John had flying the B25 and because he was a superb pilot, he was able to transition easily to this different aircraft and in just 6 hours of flight he was checked out and certified as a B26 pilot.
After his checkout he flew 6 combat missions in the B26 as co-pilot. Before his mission he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, designated "first pilot" and assigned a regular crew. These crewmembers were fortunate to be assigned as John's crew because, as a very experienced and high-time pilot, John could coax extra performance out of an airplane. He could recover from unusual and unexpected attitudes where a less experienced pilot might not be able to do so. These skills would later prove to be valuable assets.
He flew 14 missions as first pilot, many of which were in support of ground troops fighting the Battle of the Bulge. The Allies declared the Battle of the Bulge won on 28 January 1945.
Then came the fateful day of 24 February 1945. John had a mission that day. It would be his 21'. He went to the briefing room to learn the details of the mission. He learned that the objective was to bomb a bridge on the enemy's supply route in Mayan, Germany. The briefing officer said, "Merrill you are flying the lead aircraft today. You will have two wingman and you will fly at 9000 feet and you will be 3 minutes ahead of a formation of 36 B26's flying at 13,000 feet. The specific objective for your group of 3 aircraft is to drop fragmentation bombs on the anti-aircraft positions that protect the bridge so as to minimize the German opposition to the 36 plane formation that follows". John had never flown lead aircraft before and he must have thought, "Oh, my God, why me?". But, the mission commenced and when everyone was in the proper location, the bombing run began with John's 3 plane formation 3 minutes ahead and 4000 feet below the 36 plane formation. Before reaching the target, an anti-aircraft shell burst on the left side of John's plane. John started his evasive action maneuvers when a second shell exploded on the right side. So far, so good, the aircraft was not damaged, and they were still on course to the target but everything was about to change. The third shell was a direct hit just outboard of the right engine nacelle. The explosion that followed forced the aircraft into a steep nose-up attitude and a 40 degree bank to the left. The right wing and right engine immediately caught fire and gasoline fueled flames were streaming past the tail. Colonel Tapscott will recount the events that followed.
John, your actions during the next several minutes of flight are the reason you are honored here today. Recognition of your heroic action is 58 years late but none-the-less deserved.
Just a personal comment before I sit down - I want to say that having played a small part in making this event possible has been one of the most gratifying experiences in my life. Honoring our war heroes is a task that can never be completely finished but we have taken a small step toward achieving that goal today. Elizabeth, I have truly enjoyed working with you on this project. You are a gracious, highly motivated and determined woman and I thank you for allowing me to participate."
(Delivered on 8/17/03 at the St. Francis Yacht Club.)