PHOENIX — An Arizona man who spotted a Purple Heart medal in a heap of jewelry at a flea market is returning it to the recipient's Oklahoma hometown nearly 70 years after he was killed in World War II.
Matt Carlson says he knew he had to buy the medal when he saw it at a sale in Glendale in February. The Vietnam veteran, now 59, knew the medal is only awarded to those wounded or killed in combat.
Carlson told The Arizona Republic that he set out on what ended up being a nine-month effort to find relatives of the soldier whose name was engraved on the back of the medal — Clarence M. Merriott.
The search would span four states and involve dozens of volunteers and a U.S. congressman. It would also uncover the story of a young World War II Army private that touched Carlson more deeply than he could have imagined.
Carlson didn't know if the medal's recipient was alive or which war it was from. But the medal came with two letters that would aid in his search.
One was written by a commanding officer to Merriott's father, informing him of the award. It had no date but was addressed to Stilwell, Okla.
The other letter, dated April 21, 1944, was from Merriott to his family, a simple greeting from April 21, 1944, made out to "Dearest Mother, Dad + Sis," telling them he was well.
Carlson learned Merriott was assigned to the Army's 300th Combat Engineers, made up of soldiers mostly from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The battalion's mission put its men in the middle of some of the most brutal fighting in the European theater, from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge.
But Merriott never made it to France. Off the coast of Normandy on June 19, 1944, the tank landing ship he was on with about 300 other men hit a mine and broke in half. About half the men on board were killed, including Merriott.
Carlson connected with a volunteer for a group that tracks the 300th Combat Engineers group. He contacted veterans and a congressman, and distant relatives of Merriott were tracked down.
They wanted the medal donated to the museum in his hometown.
Carlson was set to hand the medal over Monday, Veterans Day, in a special program at Stilwell High School.
"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," he said.
Returning the medal to Oklahoma will bring closure, Carlson said. "I helped him find his way home."