Paul Meeker marks his 94th birthday Nov. 20 in Asheville, N.C., with cards and a photo of his World War II Army unit. He enlisted in the Army in 1938, with no idea that the adventure would include witnessing the most famous sneak attack of the 20th century - and running for his life as Japanese fighter planes rained down bullets and bombs on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Bill Sanders / Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times via)
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Paul Meeker, shown in uniform during World War II, grew up outside Savannah, Ga. He enlisted in the Army in 1938 and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Courtesy of Paul Meeker / Gannett)
WEST ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1920s and '30s, Paul Meeker had his share of adventure.
He was in the Boy Scouts, worked in a slaughterhouse for a time, got his driver's license at 14 and had the run of a farm his family rented outside of Savannah, Ga. In high school, he joined the ROTC, and after graduating he signed up for the National Guard. So enlisting in the Army in 1938 made perfect sense.
"I always thought of it as an adventure," Meeker said.
He had no idea that adventure would include witnessing the most famous sneak attack of the 20th century — and running for his life as Japanese fighter planes rained down bullets and bombs on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Meeker, now 94, got sent to Oahu in the Hawaiian islands after training.
The attack 71 years ago Friday claimed the lives of 2,290 U.S. service members, sank 21 of the 96 U.S. Navy vessels in the harbor and left most of America's 394 planes on the Hawaiian island damaged or destroyed.
On that infamous Sunday morning, soldiers like Meeker had a rest day, which many took advantage of to sleep in "late," almost 8 a.m.
"We heard an explosion, and we thought it was an earthquake," Meeker said, noting that the Pacific "Ring of Fire" was used to such seismic activity. "One soldier, he said, ‘That's a bomb. We're being attacked!' I went out and saw dozens of airplanes with rising suns on the wings."
Although some historians have suggested the United States had some warning an attack was imminent, Meeker said the men on the ground were absolutely stunned.
"It was like if you pulled a gun out and shot me right now," he said. "There was no hint of anything going on."
Meeker and the other grunts ran and got their rifles from the supply room. While some soldiers manned machine guns and got some rounds off at the planes, Meeker said they could do little with small arms.
"We were only trying to save our lives, because bombs were falling all over the place," Meeker said.
One of the more bizarre memories Meeker has is finding a postcard in the supply room, quickly scribbling a note to his mother — "I am alright. Love, Paul" — and putting it in a mailbox, all in the middle of the attack. She got the postcard about three weeks later, joyous that he was alive.
Yet on that Sunday, no one was celebrating but the Japanese.
Three days after the attack, some of the damaged ships in Pearl Harbor were still smoking. Meeker and other troops worked non-stop for three weeks to get back to some sense of normalcy, convinced the Japanese would follow up. But no invasion ensued, and gradually they restored Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, Meeker, by then promoted to technical sergeant, developed ulcers, which at the time had limited treatment options. The Army sent him back to the states with an honorable discharge. On his way to Savannah, he stopped by Asheville to thank his Aunt Ethel, who had been particularly kind to him during the war. Next-door lived a young lady Meeker describes as "the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen," Edna Webb. Three months later, on July 18, 1943, they married. They're still together today.
Meeker ran a store, the Deaverview Bargain Center in West Asheville, for 13 years before selling it and getting into the car business.
Today, he said, Americans should pause and think about those who secured the democracy many take for granted.
"It was a ‘day of infamy,' and a lot of good people lost their lives fighting for their country," Meeker said, referring to Franklin Roosevelt's famous speech the day after the attack. "There wasn't a slack person I knew of. Everybody gave it all they had."