ALAMEDA -- Flames engulfed the USS West Virginia and it was taking on water on Dec. 7, 1941, when John Rauschkolb heard the order to abandon the battleship as Japanese aircraft swooped and dived above Pearl Harbor.
"I said, 'No, I will stay right here and fight,'" said Rauschkolb, who was standing on the signal bridge when the attack began that plunged the United States into World War II. "But then they said, 'No, it's all hands.'"
As Rauschkolb jumped off the bow, a Japanese Zero streaked past, strafing the ship. Oil from the West Virginia and the nearby USS Arizona was burning on the water's surface.
"Those bullets are nasty," Rauschkolb said. "But I was lucky. The overhang of the bow protected me."
Now 91 and living in San Rafael, Rauschkolb marked the 71st anniversary of the attack on Friday by joining other Pearl Harbor survivors at a ceremony on the U.S. Coast Guard base in Alameda.
The ceremony featured prayers, a rifle volley and renditions of patriotic songs.
Other ceremonies took place throughout the country, including at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where a moment of silence for the approximately 2,400 sailors and others who died was held at 7:55 a.m., the exact time the bombing began.
Most of those killed were aboard the Arizona, which sustained a direct hit in its forward ammunition magazine, triggering a massive explosion. The sunken vessel now forms part of the permanent memorial at the harbor.
The outcome of World War II was far from certain in the months after the attack, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft said Friday. Not only had the Japanese swept through the Pacific, but Nazi Germany dominated Europe.
"There can be no doubt that the U.S. responded to this attack with anger and resolution," Zukunft said. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan.
The entire nation was mobilized, he said, and men and women who worked on the homefront building ships and manufacturing supplies equally helped secure the eventual victory.
George Larsen was a 21-year-old Coast Guard radio operator when explosions awakened him that fateful Sunday morning in Oahu. He had come off duty just five hours earlier.
"I thought at first it was the Army playing war games again," said Larsen, who grew up in Mill Valley and now lives in Marin County's Bel Marine Keys. "That's what I thought. But then I realized this was real."
Rauschkolb spent the night before the attack in Waikiki. But he was still up by 6 a.m. and on duty aboard the West Virginia when the bombing began along what the Navy called Battleship Row.
"I looked out and saw an aircraft heading for the ship," Rauschkolb said. "As it got closer, I saw that it was Japanese. I immediately knew we were under attack and that it was war."
At least four torpedoes struck the West Virginia, as well as armor-piercing shells.
As Rauschkolb and another other sailor worked to extinguish the fire from the explosions, a Japanese Zero fired at them, the bullets pinging along the ship's deck.
Both men scrambled for cover under a 5-inch gun mount, he said.
"I looked over at him and he was laughing," Rauschkolb said. "Then I began laughing, too."
Rauschkolb worked as mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service after the war.
Clarence Byal, 91, of San Leandro, was stationed aboard the USS St. Louis, a light cruiser. Its crew managed to reach the open sea within hours of the attack and joined the search for the Japanese fleet.
Byal had celebrated his 20th birthday the day before the bombing.
"I had duty that night and I had liberty the following day," Byal said, before adding with smile, "but that never happened."
The anniversary of Pearl Harbor is bittersweet, Byal said, because Dec. 7 also marks his wedding anniversary. He married, Catherine, now 89, five years after the attack.
"She wanted that date," said Byal, who retired after 37 years in the Navy. "And we talked it over and I eventually agreed."
The smoke and explosions are his most vivid memories of that Sunday morning, Byal said. But he admits that he has chosen to forget much of what happened on Dec. 7, 1941.
"I have gotten in the habit over the years of remembering only the things that I enjoy," Byal said. "If it bothers me or makes me sad, I just put it aside."
Contact Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him at Twitter.com/peter_hegarty.