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Originally published May 3, 2013 at 8:24 PM | Page modified May 3, 2013 at 11:53 PM

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New school building will honor wartime courage in South Pacific

An 87-year-old veteran of a World War II Marine fighting force in the South Pacific has traveled from his Gig Harbor home to the Solomon Islands to promote the building of a school in honor of his wartime comrades.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As a teenage enlistee during World War II, Chuck Meacham Sr. volunteered for the Marine Raiders, specialized units formed to fight in the first ground offensives against the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Meacham landed on the beaches of Bougainville, Emirau, Guam and Okinawa, becoming a combat-hardened Marine before the age of 20. When the war was over, he returned home to train as a fisheries biologist.

Today, Meacham, 87, is part of a dwindling band of survivors of the four Raider battalions that were disbanded in 1944, with their members transferred to other units.

Within the past three years, he has twice left his Gig Harbor condominium to journey to the Solomon Islands, where the Raiders fought their fiercest battles. Those trips have set the stage for construction of a school building that will serve as a memorial to the Marine Raiders and islanders who helped them in the campaign to oust the Japanese.

The classroom addition will be built this summer on Tulagi, a tiny island of fishermen, less than 4 miles long, where the Raiders first came ashore as part of the Guadalcanal campaign.

“There already is a school there on Blue Beach, where the Raiders landed, and there was an empty spot for a building that never got built,” Meacham said. “So we decided to raise the funds for it.”

The U.S. Marine Raider Foundation has put forward $100,000 for the six-room building, which will be erected by Construction for Change, a Seattle-based nonprofit that builds schools, clinics and other public projects. The group highlighted the project during an annual fundraiser held Thursday in Sodo.

The Raider Foundation, based in Gig Harbor, has helped preserve the legacy of the 7,600 Raiders, whose units were forerunners to the modern special forces.

The Raiders were put through what Meacham called “the toughest training the Marines could devise.” They were skilled in close-quarters combat and equipped with black paint and stencils to turn herringbone-twill dungarees into jungle camouflage. Their battlefield actions resulted in seven Medals of Honor, 136 Navy Crosses and hundreds of other combat awards, according to the U.S. Marine Raider Association, the foundation’s parent organization.

“They were an awesome bunch of men doing things that had never been done before, like coming ashore from submarines,” said Patrick Mooney, visitors service chief at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. “They are viewed with huge admiration and awe.”

In the Solomon Islands, the Raiders’ story is intertwined with that of islanders who helped scout Japanese positions.

“They were our eyeballs, and absolutely indispensable,” says Meacham.

One of the islanders, Jacob Vouza, was captured, tied up, tortured and left for dead. But somehow he was able to escape and make his way back to a Raider battalion to warn of an imminent attack by Japanese forces.

Since 1971, the Raider Foundation has funded a scholarship program named in Vouza’s honor to help children from remote communities attend a boarding school on Guadalcanal Island.

Meacham, who ended his Marine service as a private first class, went on to a fisheries career that took him to Alaska for 35 years. He’s now on the board of the Raider Foundation. His son, Chuck Meacham Jr., serves as president.

In 2011, Meacham Sr. went back to the Solomon Islands, speaking at a memorial ceremony, where he recalled his two years of fighting in the Pacific campaign as a Browning automatic rifleman.

“As one of the men who fought in that titanic struggle, I never expected to be here today, and I can hardly believe that I am,” Meacham said in his speech.

On the island, he found plenty of reminders of World II, including fox holes, airplane parts and the rusting remains of vehicles.

During a second trip to Tulagi in 2012, Meacham met with officials to finish plans for the school addition. Four of the rooms will bear the names of the four Raider battalion commanders, including James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Meacham says he hopes that the building can eventually house a medical clinic and library, if funding allows.

The construction effort has faced some challenges because Tulagi is host to voracious termites that feast on wooden structures.

So the school building will be made of metal, with James Lloyd, a carpenter serving as the volunteer project manager in Tulagi, working with a team of Seattle-area construction experts who have helped with design and engineering.

“Wood would be a lot cheaper to do, but this will last a lot longer,” said Shelby Port, executive director for Construction for Change.

Port said the project has received great cooperation both from the Solomon Islands government and from businesses, including a shipper that donated space to send the construction materials to Tulagi.

Meacham isn’t sure if he’ll return for the building’s dedication. “Two things, health and funds,” he says. “I paid for both of the earlier trips out of my own pockets, and they were very expensive trips.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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