A single photo of Maj. Gen. Lewie Merritt hanging in a lounge inside the operations building at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort struck a group of Citadel alumni as no way to honor the two-star general after whom the base is named.
Late last month representatives of several Citadel alumni groups presented the air station with a large display honoring Merritt, who graduated from the academy in 1917.
The display features criss-crossing American and Marine Corps flags in front of a large, red shadow box featuring Merritt's biography and photographs retrieved from Citadel and Marine Corps archives.
"We just felt that this is a man who deserves recognition as a Marine and as a Citadel graduate," said Bob Mebane, a member of the school's Alumni Recognition Committee, who assembled the display. "He deserves recognition for what he did."
Mebane said the group, which is dedicated to preserving Citadel history and publicizing its alumni, began assembling information and photographs of Merritt's life for the display about two years ago.
"He's one of our most prominent alumni," Mebane said. "He was a senior commander in the Pacific during World War II and is credited with developing the idea of dive-bombing and close air support. He was a pioneer in Marine Corps aviation."
Merritt was born in Ridge Springs in 1897 and graduated from The Citadel in 1917, according to school records.
Upon graduation from the academy, Merritt was commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the Marine Corps and trained as a pilot while also earning his law degree from George Washington University, Corps records show.
In January 1941, Merritt became the first American service member to be shot down in the European theater during World War II, when the Royal Air Force bomber he was flying crashed after being hit by German anti-aircraft fire in Egypt. Merritt and the crew were later rescued by a British armored unit, according to records.
Merritt went on to command and fly with units in the central Pacific, making him the only Marine pilot to serve in both European and Pacific theaters, according to Corps records. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1947 as a major general, according to the Corps.
Merritt returned to South Carolina where he practiced law until being hired by Gov. Strom Thurmond as director of the S.C. Legislative Council in 1949. He later served as campaign manager for then-Lt. Gov. George Timmerman's successful 1954 gubernatorial bid, according to Citadel records.
Merritt retired from government work in 1967. He died in March 1974, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The next year, the Marine Corps christened Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort as "Merritt Field."
"I think they did that because he was a South Carolina native and he was such a pioneer in Marine aviation," Mebane said. "He helped convince the Corps to adopt aviation into its combat doctrine. To that point, it had almost strictly been a ground force."
Air station spokeswoman Lt. Sharon Hyland said the base takes pride in housing a display that recognizes the service of such a decorated Marine pilot and South Carolina statesman.
"It's a testament to Maj. Gen. Merritt's life and career that the Marines and Citadel alumni dedicated so much time and effort into the display," Hyland said. "History is such an important part of a Marine's heritage, so it's only fitting that the contributions made by Maj. Gen. Merritt to the Marine Corps and aviation are memorialized at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort for all Marines and visitors to see."