Herbert Christian Merillat, 94

Herbert Christian Merillat, author of books on Guadalcanal, dies at 94

Mr. Merillat wrote two books about the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Mr. Merillat wrote two books about the Battle of Guadalcanal. (Photo By Linda Bartlett)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Herbert Christian Merillat, 94, an expert in international law who wrote two books about the Battle of Guadalcanal, which he had seen firsthand during World War II, died April 10 at his home in Washington. He had emphysema.

The Guadalcanal campaign, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943, was seen as a bloody, prolonged but important early triumph against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Then-Lt. Merillat, a Rhodes scholar who held a low-level Treasury Department job, joined the Marine Corps in 1942 as public relations officer and official historian of the 1st Marine Division. His chief responsibilities included getting visiting journalists to write upbeat stories about combat operations.

Mr. Merillat, who finished the war at the rank of major, wrote two books about Guadalcanal. The first, "The Island" (1944), received tepid reviews for its semi-official chronicle of day-to-day fighting on the ground by the 1st Marine Division.

Critically, Mr. Merillat fared much better with "Guadalcanal Remembered" (1982), which relied on a liberal sprinkling of his diary entries to provide a vivid recounting of wartime public relations bureaucracy.

He wrote in one entry: "People would be amazed at the behind-the-scenes activity in hero-making; quarrels over which cases are most deserving; seeing that all ranks and units are properly represented; dressing up weak cases to make them appear stronger; last minute switches from one class of decoration to another. . . . The number of decorations is determined, not by the number of deserving cases, but by the number and types of medals the admiral totes along."

Drew Middleton, who covered the war for the New York Times, called "Guadalcanal Remembered" an "excellent addition" to the subgenre of Guadalcanal literature.

In his review of the book, Middleton wrote that with Mr. Merillat's diary entries, "the mind is snapped back to times when the most important thing in the world seemed to be four or five hours of uninterrupted sleep, a hot meal or perhaps a single day or night without bombing or shelling."

Herbert Christian Laing Merillat, who had no immediate survivors, was born May 7, 1915, in Winfield, Iowa, and grew up in Monmouth, Ill. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1935 from the University of Arizona, he studied at the University of Oxford in England and attended Yale Law School.

After the war, Mr. Merillat wrote for Time magazine and then spent several more years as an administrator in Washington, London and Paris for U.S. foreign aid agencies.

From 1955 to 1961, he worked for the Ford Foundation in New York City and New Delhi as an executive associate with a primary interest in international law.

In the 1960s, he served as executive vice president of the American Society of International Law in Washington. He then began a long freelance writing career, contributing articles to newspapers, magazines and professional journals.

His interest in Indian culture led to the book "Land and the Constitution in India" (1970), which explored legal conflicts over land reform and property rights, and "Sculpture West and East: Two Traditions" (1973). A Washington Post reviewer called the latter book an "informative and wide-ranging survey."

"I turned to writing full time in my middle fifties, in part to learn a few of those many things one never has time for in a conventional career," he told the reference guide Contemporary Authors. "I enjoy trying to write simply, freshly and directly about subjects that specialized experts tend to deal with in jargon."

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