Friday, November 25, 2011

Sutton's First WWII Casualty - Marine Sgt. Merritt C. Walton


Merritt C. Walton's Biography and the Unique Honor for Sutton’s First WWII Casualty

Area newspapers reported in January, 1943 the posthumously awarding of the Navy Cross to Sutton’s first casualty of World War II, Marine Platoon Sergeant Merritt C. Walton, sometimes known to his family as Cecil Merritt. He received the award for valor displayed on August 7, 1942 on Gavutu, Solomon Islands when he led an attack on a Japanese machine gun position that threatened his platoon’s right flank. The attack was successful but Sgt. Walton was fatally wounded.

The Navy Cross was only one of two honors, the lesser one I believe, that the Navy bestowed on this Marine with Sutton connections. More on that other award in a moment.

Marine Platoon Sergeant Merritt C. Walton (18 Dec 1916 - 7 Aug 1942), Sutton's first casualty in World War II
Sgt. Walton was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1916 and lived there until 1933 when he and his mother moved to Sutton to be near relatives. He lived in Sutton until joining the Marines in early 1937 after spending the prior summer working on the Fort Peck Dam at Ft. Peck, Montana.

The first active duty assignment for Sgt. Walton was a three year hitch with the marine garrison in Shanghai, China. He spent much of 1940 at Mare Island on the north edge of San Francisco Bay before duty at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The beginning of World War II brought him to parachute training at Quantico, Virginia, a short tour in North Carolina and then off to the South Pacific and the battle for the Solomon Islands.

Sgt. Walton visited his mother and relatives in Sutton during Christmas, 1941. Area relatives included his mother, Mrs. Clara Olson, a sister Mrs. Floyd Schwab in California and his grandmother Mrs. Zenah Walton of Edgar. Sgt. Merritt Walton’s family connection to Clay County comes from his father Cecil Cullen Walton who was raised on the Marshall Township homestead of his father, also named Merritt Walton. The older Merritt Walton’s own father, Isaiah Walton was the family patriarch, born in Maine, lived in Indiana and came to Edgar late in life. He is buried in the Marshall Union Cemetery about a mile north of Merritt Walton’s homestead. A number of Isaiah Walton’s descendants lived in Nuckolls, Fillmore and Clay Counties and do still today – your author among them.

Sgt. Merritt Walton’s fatal encounter on Gavutu occurred just seven months after that Christmas visit to Sutton on the Allies’ first offensive on the island. The award of the Navy Cross was an appropriate recognition of the bravery of his actions that day. The Cross is a highly ranked medal in the hierarchy of Navy medals. But that “other” award is truly noteworthy.

It may require some personal military experience to fully appreciate the honor that the U. S. Navy granted to Sgt. Walton. The United States Navy saw fit to name a ship, a World War II John C. Butler-class destroyer-escort, the USS Walton after Sutton’s first World War II casualty, Marine Sergeant Merritt C. Walton. Yes, the Navy named one of their ships after a Marine. Sure, the Marines are part of the Department of the Navy, but, personal experience speaking here; it often takes a soldier or an airman to remind seamen and marines that they are parts of the same organization.

Is the USS Walton the only Navy ship, or the only ship overall, to have a Sutton connection? I can’t think of another.

The Walton was launched on 20 May 1944 in Orange, Texas with Sgt. Walton’s mother present and sponsoring the ship. The destroyer was commissioned on 4 September 1944. The ship served briefly as a school ship at Hampton Roads, Virginia before heading to Bora Bora and the Solomon Islands. Her first active wartime duty was in late January, 1945 as escort to merchantmen ships bound for the Philippines. Escort duty continued through the end of the war. After the end of the war, the Walton had the honor or transporting discharge-bound veterans home arriving in San Pedro, California nine days before Christmas, 1945.

She was decommissioned until the Korean War when she was re-activated and was assigned to Pearl Harbor for a second career as destroyer-escort throughout that war. The Walton became a school house again after the Korean War, this time for Naval Reserve personnel.

Final decommissioning came on 20 September 1968. In her final act of service to the country, this time as a target ship she was sunk on 7 August 1969, the 27th anniversary of the death of Sergeant Merritt C. Walton.

Was it a pure coincidence that the ship was sunk on the anniversary day of the death of her namesake? Perhaps, and I’m sure that official Navy archives would not indicate anything to the contrary. But I also can’t help but speculate that some Navy Lieutenant with a sense of history, and maybe a sense of humor too, tweaked the gunnery practice schedule so that the hull of the USS Walton would be the target on August 7th. As one who was an Air Force Lieutenant that day in August, 1969, I hope something like that really happened and I salute that Lieutenant, real or imagined.

The complete story of the USS Walton can be found at several online locations. Try these first: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Walton_(DE-361) and http://www.navsource.org/archives/06/361.htm

Then through the wonder of 1940's home movies, check out the USS Walton and its crew on youtube.com ...   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtLqe70FW6M&feature=related

And for a better and extensive look at the men who served on the USS Walton, visit the ship's web site at http://usswalton.com/    where you will find dozens, no hundreds of photos taken by crew members during the life of "our" destroyer.

As a distant relative of Merritt Walton, I was very familiar with the story that the USS Walton had been named after Merritt Cecil Walton but I’d associated him with Minnesota and Fillmore County. It came as something of a surprise to find local papers describing Walton as Sutton’s first casualty of World War II. I am proud to include the story of my distant cousin in our collection of Sutton’s veterans, especially as we can make the connection with the destroyer – that definitely adds to this story.

Sgt. Walton’s citation for the Navy Cross reads as follows:

“For extraordinary heroism as member of the First Parachute Battalion, First Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Gavutu, Solomon Islands August 7, 1942. Although fully aware of his extreme personal danger, Platoon Sergeant Walton voluntarily proceeded  to reconnoiter the position of a hostile machine gun which threatened his platoon’s right flank. After skillfully spotting the weapon’s location, he courageously participated in a daring attack and realized success in silencing this deadly menace before he died of fatal wounds.

“Platoon Sergeant Walton’s unflinching determination and unconquerable fighting spirit were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

USS Walton, DE-361, John C. Butler Class Destroyer-Escort named for Sutton's First WWII Casualty, Sgt. Merritt C. Walton here pictured in San Francisco Bay on 7 May  1967 as the flagship for the annual blessing of the Fleet.     

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