When Matthew Carlson spotted a Purple Heart at a flea market in Glendale, Ariz., the Vietnam veteran knew it needed to return to its rightful owner.
The vendor wanted $40 for the war medal awarded to service members wounded or killed in combat. Carlson only had half of that, but it was enough.
“If I lost something like that, I would want my family to have it back,” he told CNN recounting the purchase he made in February. “It’s something that can never be replaced.”
The only clue Carlson had to find the Purple Heart’s owner was a name engraved on the back of the medal, "For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott."
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Little did Carlson know, the search for Merriott’s family would be a long one – spanning four states, enlisting dozens of volunteers and a U.S. congressman. The medal sat untouched for months until the 59-year-old asked his son for computer help.
"Do you know how to use the Internet to find things?" Carlson asked his son. When he opened the box to remove the medal, for the first time Carlson spotted pieces of paper folded into the bottom of the box. One was a death certificate, the other was a letter dated April 21, 1944, from Merriott to his family in Stilwell, Oklahoma.
Google revealed Clarence M. Merriott may have belonged to the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II. The battalion, which built roads and bridges to advance the front lines between D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge, experienced brutal fighting and one of its most deadly days in June 1944 – two months after Merriott sent that letter.
Carlson sent an email to Brad Peters, a volunteer with the 300th Combat Engineers group, about the missing Purple Heart he found at the flea market.
“It was a complete surprise,” Peters, who has collected hundreds of photographs and stories from the battalion’s few remaining members, told the Arizona Republic. “We said we’d be willing to help any way we could.”
Another veteran, Kenneth “Cowboy” Morris, who was from a town near Stilwell, had a grandson who was just elected to Congress also decided to help. But it was the local history museum who went through census records, newspaper articles and scrapbooks that uncovered what happened to Clarence M. Merriott. He was one of the 90 men killed when a landing ship he was on struck an underwater mine off Utah Beach in Normandy, France. His name appears on a World War II memorial in the Stilwell.
Wanda Elliott, of the Adair County Historical and Genealogical Association, who helped uncover Merriott’s story also found a few distant relatives. Family members, who believe the medal got misplaced during a move, asked for the Purple Heart to be displayed in the town’s museum.
“Before, it was just a medal that I wanted to get returned to the right people. But now it’s more.” Carlson said describing the connection he feels towards Merriott’s memory. “This young man ... joined the military to serve his country. I joined the military to serve my country. We both saw combat. I came home. He didn’t.”