William Keith was struggling to get out, along with other sailors trapped below the main deck of the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, as torpedoes and bombs hammered the battleship. Only one ladder led topside, Keith said.
“Everybody tried to get up on that one ladder,’' Keith said in a telephone interview. “You are stepping on each other’s hands, and often they fall back down.’’
It was shortly before 8 a.m., and Keith was a US seaman who witnessed and survived the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
When he managed to get on the top deck of the battleship, Keith, now 92, recalled that one half of the massive warship was in flames. He changed direction and, like other sailors, clambered onto the USS Tennessee, which was tied to his battleship, and then made his way ashore, where he was handed a rifle. Officials said 106 sailors died aboard the West Virginia.
Keith, a longtime Marshfield resident who now lives in Quincy with his wife, Barbara, plans to attend a wreath-laying service planned for Mount Wollaston Cemetery at 10 a.m. Saturday as the City of Presidents and the state mark the 72d anniversary of the attack that triggered American involvement in World War II.
Some 2,403 Americans were killed in the attack by waves of Japanese airplanes that ended shortly before 10 a.m. that fateful day. Twenty-one ships of the US Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged. More than 180 planes were destroyed.
Keith is one of a steadily dwindling number of veterans from the attack, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.’’
Quincy veterans’ agent Thomas Stansbury said two Pearl Harbor survivors who were also longtime Quincy residents have died in the last two years.
Once the survivors are gone, Stansbury said, the city will still mark the attack with the wreath-laying ceremony during which the names of the Massachusetts residents who were killed in the attack are read aloud. (If weather is bad, the event will shift to the Cyril P. Morrisette American Legion post on Liberty Street).
“We don’t want to forget,’’ he said.
A memorial service will be held at noon Saturday in Boston next to the USS Cassin Young, a World War II destroyer, berthed near the USS Constitution at Charlestown Navy Yard.
Keith will be brought to the Quincy ceremony by one of his two sons, both of whom are Vietnam veterans. The sons served in Vietnam at the same time during 1967 and 1968, the family recalled.
Barbara Keith said she had the right under federal law as a mother to pull one of her sons out of combat, but did not because she would have been forced to choose between children she loved equally.
“I just prayed a lot,” Barbara Keith said. “And they both came home safely.’’
Barbara Keith said that she did not know her husband was a Pearl Harbor survivor until well after they were married in 1945. She recalled how her mother in law showed her the message Keith sent back to his family on Dec. 8, 1941, to let them know he was alive.
It was a paper bag that Keith used as both paper and envelope on Dec. 8, 1941. “Dear Mom and Dad I’m okay. Will write later. Love Bill.’’
William Keith was transferred to the USS Chester, which participated in the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, and was later found to have suffered what is now known as post-traumatic disorder, his wife said.
He credits his survival that day at Pearl Harbor to chance.
“I was just lucky,’’ he said.John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.