Natchez native garnered much acclaim as WWII naval officer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One of the most outstanding American Naval Officers in World War II was Admiral Aaron (Tip) Stanton Merrill, a Natchez native.

During the war, he won several honors for many of the naval battles he was engaged in. He also is credited with being the first admiral to successfully direct the firing on and sinking of an enemy vessel with just radar for guidance.

Merrill was born on March 26, 1890, at Brandon Hall in Stanton. He received his early education at the Natchez Institute and attended the Navy Preparatory School before entering the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1908.

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During his years at the academy, he was a member of the boxing, wrestling and gym teams. He graduated on June 7, 1912, and received his ensign commission the following day. During World War I he served aboard the destroyer USS Roe and later aboard the USS Conyngham.

For a time he trained officers for duty on destroyers, but the last few months of the war he served aboard the USS Aylwin.

He remained in the navy after the war, and in early 1941 he was assigned by the navy to teach Naval Science and Tactics at Tulane University in New Orleans. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the U.S. entered into World War II, Merrill was relieved of his duties at Tulane and appointed commander of the USS Battleship Indiana in April 1942.

By November, he and his ship were with the U.S. fleet in the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. In February 1943, he was promoted to rear admiral and given command of Task Force 36.2. This task force guarded the Solomon Island area for the following year.

It was on the night of March 4, 1943, that he won fame for his use of radar. On that night, he was leading a cruiser-destroyer task force off the Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands, when radar detected the presence of two enemy warships. Not waiting for an actual sighting, he ordered his ships to open fire, and both enemy vessels were sunk.

This was the first recorded case of radar being used to detect and direct fire to sink an enemy vessel without a visual sighting.

During the war, Merrill was decorated several times for his successes in battle. He earned the Legion of Merit, the Gold Star in lieu of Second Legion of Merit, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal, among others. From June 1944 to April 1945, he served as the director of Navy public relations. On Jan. 3, 1946 he commanded the Eighth Naval District in New Orleans, and in June his command was extended to include command of the Gulf Coast Frontier.

He retired from the navy in November 1947 with the honorary rank of Vice Admiral.

His retirement at the age of only 57 may have come about because of a speech he gave in 1946, criticizing President Harry S Truman’s plan to unify the armed services, when Merrill stated that this would weaken the Navy. Truman ordered that this “lobbying” against his plan by the navy be stopped, and a year later Merrill retired from active service.

He retired to Natchez, and he again achieved national attention by his support of Jefferson Military College, after the school’s rejection of a local oil man’s offer of a large endowment that came with the stipulations that “Negroes and Jews” be excluded from the school.

It was first announced that that this endowment was worth $50,000,000. However, George W. Armstrong, the oil man who made the offer, stated that the offer was for half of the mineral rights he owned in the Natchez area, and that it actually was worth from $5,000,000 to $50,000,000.

For whatever the amount, Merrill led a fundraising drive that raised $6,500 to repay a loan that Armstrong had already advanced the school, and Merrill later became president of Jefferson Military College. He was still serving as president of Jefferson Military College when he passed away on Feb. 28, 1961.

Clark BURKETT is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.