COLORADO SPRINGS -- No one asked Navy Lt. James Downing to hurriedly memorize the names on the dog tags of the dead and injured during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But the then-28-year-old did it because he could not bear the thought of families not knowing the fate of their loved ones. He wrote to as many families as he could.

The Colorado Springs resident, who celebrated his 100th birthday in August, is the oldest known survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese sneak attack that killed more than 2,400 Americans.

Downing fought to save lives that day, all the while wondering if it was day his own life would end.

Downing was a gunner's mate 1st class and postmaster, assigned to the USS West Virginia. The battleship had just returned to base after more than a week on patrol.

His wife of five months, Morena, was cooking Sunday morning breakfast for a few servicemen in the couple's home near the harbor when they heard explosions in the distance, Downing said

"Then an anti-aircraft shell landed right outside and blew a crater about 25-feet across," a Downing said, illustrating with outstretched arms .

There was no time to think, Downing said, only react and rely on training. As he told his new bride good bye, she handed him a verse of scripture from Deuteronomy 33:27: "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Downing jumped in a truck with the other servicemen, and sped to the war zone.

The worst damage occurred during the first 11 minutes of the Japanese attack. The ride down to the harbor took about 20 minutes, so, when Downing arrived, he witnessed a scene of fiery destruction.

Downing ran to his ship,which was sinking after being stuck by nine torpedoes, he said.

"The first emotion was surprise and the next thing was fear," he said. "When I saw our ships, so many of them, sunk there, I wondered 'What else are they were going to do to us here?' "

Accepting his own mortality, Downing said he did everything he could to help those who were injured and fight the fires on his ship.

"The first Japanese I encountered was flying low and slow, so low you could almost see his eyes," Downing said.

Bullets from the plane whizzed near the top of his head, but Downing was not hit.

Covered in oil and running from one chaotic scene to the next, Downing said he was overcome by a new emotion.

"Pride came in because our people responded so magnificently with what they had," Downing said. "Innovation, risk; there were a lot of heroes there that morning."

Downing gathered as many names as he could of the dead on his ship, and later of burn victims in the medical unit, he said.

"They just told me to tell their parents, 'I'm doing fine; I'll be all right,' " Downing said. "Most of them died that night."

Families wrote Downing back, thanking him for his kindness and thoughtfulness in delivering the devastating news.

The gesture, he said, wasn't grand. "It was just something you do," Downing said of his actions.

Downing and his wife were reunited the next day.

"I hadn't shaved and was covered in oil, but she said it was a nice sight to see me alive," Downing said with a chuckle.

Every Dec. 7, Downing attends a Pearl Harbor remembrance, he said, and will attend Saturday's ceremony in Colorado Springs.

"Remember Pearl Harbor," he said. "Keep America strong."

Downing, who joined the Navy after high school for financial reasons, had a career that spanned more than 24 years, including service as captain of the tanker USS Patapsco during the Korean War, he said.

Downing and his wife had seven children. Morena died in 2010. They had been married 69 years.

Downing has been a member of The Navigators, an interdenominational Christian ministry headquartered in Colorado Springs, since the 1930s, he said.

Having lived a little more than 100 years, and surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor unscathed, Downing said he knows the meaning of existence.

"Life is a meaningful relationship with God, family and friends," he said. "I'm satisfied as long as I can have those three things."