MONMOUTH — On Dec. 7, 1941 — 70 years ago today — James Paradis was a 21-year-old U.S. Army sergeant on his way to breakfast when he witnessed some of the first moments of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The former lumberjack from the Aroostook County town of Eagle Lake was the sergeant of the guard at Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He'd been up all night as other men slept in their bunks. At the harbor about 12 miles away, most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet sat at anchor.
"I saw these airplanes come over Kolekole Pass, a big flight of them," said Paradis, now 91. "I thought, 'What the hell are the Marines doing?'"
It was Sunday morning. The planes were a mile or two away, too far to see their Japanese insignia.
"I watched them," Paradis said. "When they got down low enough so they approached Wheeler Field, they started dropping bombs and I said, 'Oh, crap!'"
Soon, he began to see plumes of smoke on the horizon.
"It got real chaotic," said Paradis, who led the transportation department of the Army's 24th Medical Battalion. "I got a call from the battalion commander. He wanted a staff car. He wanted to go down to Wheeler Field because he knew there were going to be casualties."
A moment later, he saw his enemy up close. A Japanese plane flew overhead, followed closely by an American.
"They went by me close enough that I saw both their faces," Paradis said.
He might even have tried to shoot the Japanese pilot, but the .45-caliber pistol on his hip wasn't loaded.
"It was peacetime," Paradis said with a shrug. "They didn't trust us. I don't know if I would have shot at him, anyway."
All these years later, the images of that morning remain with Paradis, who retired in 1976 to a home he built in Monmouth. He has albums stuffed with photographs. He can still recall the sound of the bombs. And he can remember the shouts and the confusion.
"We were all in pretty much of a panic because we thought we were going to be invaded," he said. "I don't know why they didn't, but they could have taken the island in no time at all."
His duties as the transportation boss included control of a fleet of ambulances. Despite catastrophic losses, most of the ambulances sat idle, because the drivers had scattered across the island. Only the day before, his commanders had ended a two-week alert that had kept the men at their posts.
"(That morning) I had 30-something ambulances and I didn't have three drivers," he said. The attack seemed more real when he learned that one of his few drivers had been strafed by a Japanese plane and was shot.
"That pretty much brought it to my attention," he said dryly.
Was he scared?
"No," Paradis said. "I got mad. I wanted to bomb Japan."
He would get his way.
For a young man who had grown up in Northern Maine, it all seemed foreign.
At 14, he'd left home in Eagle Lake to work in lumber camps. By 1939, he had joined the Maine National Guard. When someone told him he'd make a good soldier, he joined the Army. He was given his choice of Panama, the Philippines or Hawaii.
It was an easy choice. He'd been there just over two years when the Japanese hit.
A few weeks after the attack, he learned that the Army was desperate for pilots. All he had to do was pass a physical test and a written test.
"I'd rather be up there than to be down here and be bombed," he said. "I didn't expect that I'd ever make it, because I didn't have a high school diploma. When they asked where my high school was, I told them, 'Fort Kent, Maine.' They didn't ask me if I ever went. I didn't tell them."
The Army accepted him for flight school. He trained in California, Arizona and Texas.
"Flying came easy to me," he said. "I could fly anything, I think."
The Army made him an instructor on the B-17 Flying Fortress. Meanwhile, his buddies were sent to Europe.
"I guess I was lucky I didn't go," he said. "I don't remember but one or two that I ever saw again."
In 1945, with well over 1,000 hours in B-17 bombers, the Army decided he had to see the war again. It made him a commander aboard its state-of-the-art B-29 Superfortress.
That June, he and his crew of nine made their way across the Pacific to the island of Tinian.
With only two months left in the war, he rejoined the fight, flying six combat missions.
"They bombed me," he said. "I wanted to bomb them to get the war over with."
"I was on a mission the day they dropped the first A-bomb," he said. "I was on a mission the day they dropped the second A-bomb. I didn't know what an A-bomb was, but we found out soon."
The bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later ended the war. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.
Seven decades later, Paradis said he dwells little on the war or the history he witnessed 70 years ago.
He had a full life in between. He stayed in the military to complete his 20 years, retiring from the Army in the 1950s. He was married for 61 years to his wife, Rita. They had two sons, James Jr. and Wayne. Both served in the military.
Their father remains a member of one of the state's most exclusive groups.
According to the Secretary of State's office, only six Mainers continue to drive cars with license plates that identify them as Pearl Harbor survivors.
Other reminders are less tangible.
"I still have a hard time forgiving the Japanese," Paradis said. "I don't like to buy anything Japanese."
Americans should never forget, he said.
"They should know what led up to it, what happened, how many ships were sunk and how many people were killed," he said.
Pearl Harbor attack by the numbers
2,000-plus: Number of Americans killed.
350-plus: Number of Japanese planes involved.
8: Number of U.S. Navy battleships damaged.
1,177 : Number of men killed on the USS Arizona, which exploded when a bomb ignited gunpowder.
2: Number of battleships — the USS Arizona and the USS Utah — that remain on the bottom of the harbor as memorials.
29 : Japanese planes lost in the attack.
Source: Naval History & Heritage Command