Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.
Odd, he thought. It seems to be firing tracers.
“Then the whole island felt like it was bouncing up and down,” said Meyne, who was a private, a radar operator and a little bit hung over on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“Hickam Field was just all on fire,” the 89-year-old recalls as he sits at his kitchen table in Irmo, to this a day an expression of complete disbelief on his face. “Everything was on fire.”
The jovial Meyne — the jokes come as fast as the war stories — will be one of the veterans on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital on Nov. 15.
Honor Flight of South Carolina hopes to raise $300,000 to take 600 veterans in six flights over the next year to view the National World War II Memorial.
Meyne — pronounced “my knee” — said he has never been to the memorial, not because he wasn’t able to travel, but because:
“I never got used to D.C. traffic.”
“I didn’t have time.”
“I didn’t get around to it.”
Actually, after some prodding, it turns out Meyne also didn’t want to burden his family with the emotions that might surface.
But he acquiesced to the Honor Flight because he would be going with other veterans.
“You are going to go with a lot of people who will know what you are thinking,” he said. “If you get a little bleary-eyed, the guys will understand.”
Bleary-eyed is not Meyne’s usual state. Enduring the conflagration at Pearl Harbor, piloting 35 bombing runs over Europe and coming home in one piece make a guy feel lucky.
“I was walking three feet off the ground,” he said.
Perry McLeod, a Richland Northeast High School history teacher, has done more than 150 oral histories of veterans with his students in a program called “Our Local Greatest Generation.” He called Meyne’s “one of the most extraordinary” stories.
“He was there at the beginning of the war at Pearl and then went to Europe to fly bombers,” McLeod said. “Then he made all of his missions and came home.”
Meyne’s story starts when he was drafted before the war in Elyeria, Ohio, west of Cleveland.
Turned down for flight school because he was married, he was shipped to Pearl to man an anti-aircraft gun. Instead, he found himself trying to operate a newfangled radar set.
“No one could even turn the damn thing on,” he said.
On that fateful Sunday near Pearl, Meyne thought he was getting ready to ship back to the mainland for training, which is why he and his buddies had consumed “three or four” cases of beer on Saturday night.
Hung over or not, he fought, to no avail, the Japanese planes strafing Hickam, firing rounds from his Browning Automatic Rifle. And he watched in amazement as the Japanese Zeros and Kates swarmed and circled the harbor like insects.
“It was like a circus, like a whirligig,” he said.
Pilot opportunities opened up. Meyne in 1944 found himself at an air base in Kimbolton, England, 70 miles north of London, flying B-17s.
He flew 35 missions, “ruined” four bombers and earned two bronze stars and a distinguished flying cross.
Meyne was awarded his flying cross for landing his B-17 with only two of the four engines at a bombed out German fighter base in France.
“It was rough as hell,” he recalls. “But everything held together.”
Meyne returned home to Ohio after completing his 35th mission on Feb. 19, 1945. He worked as an insurance representative for General Motors and, in 1975, transferred to Columbia. He and his wife, Marion, decided to stay after retirement.
“I met a lot of nice people here,” he said.
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.