Spurgeon D. Keeth, who was Clatsop County’s last living survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, died Thursday. He was 92.
After spending most his life in Wapato, Washington, in the Yakima Valley, Keeth moved to Hammond in 2015 to be cared for by his daughter, Donna Barnett, and her husband, Bill. Keeth led a more private life and hadn’t belonged to any veterans groups in Washington state, Barnett said.
“When he came here, things changed,” she said. “He couldn’t socialize a lot, but when people found out there was a Pearl Harbor survivor, they went nuts.”
Keeth became a local celebrity on the North Coast and the county’s last living survivor of the attack after the death of Seaside’s Bill Thomas a year ago. Thomas, a sailor on the Navy’s USS Medusa during the attack, helped lead the effort to dedicate Seaside’s First Avenue Bridge the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in 2000.
Keeth received free membership in American Legion Post 99 in Seaside and Clatsop Post 12 in Astoria and became a fixture at local parades and an annual wreath-laying ceremony on the memorial bridge.
Mike Phillips of Clatsop Post 12 said Keeth was one of about 50 World War II-era members of the post. Jay Blount, a spokesman with the National Park Service World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, told The Oregonian earlier this year there are likely fewer than 2,000 Pearl Harbor survivors left.
Keeth joined the Army at 16 and was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. He was on kitchen duty at the time of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
“He went out to dump potato peelings, and he heard unexpected sounds of planes,” Barnett said. “Then he looked up, and saw the rising sun on the planes.”
Her father didn’t talk about the attack much, she said, besides that he watched several of his friends die. Keeth served in the Pacific during World War II, including battles at Guadalcanal and in the Solomon Islands. In a 1944 interview with the the Yakima Herald, Keeth described surviving nearby shell explosions, a 19-day siege and being shot at and missed from 3 yards away.
“He could have touched me with his rifle,” Keeth told the newspaper of his run-in with the Japanese soldier. “I don’t know how he happened to miss.”
After the war, Keeth married Ruby, and the couple had four children and nine grandchildren. Most of the family still resides in Yakima Valley, Barnett said. Keeth attended Perry Trade School and learned to be a mechanic who specialized in bodies and fenders.
“Dad was so handy,” Barnett said, describing her father taking apart a surplus house at Fort Vancouver, Washington, and reassembling it as the family home in Wapato. “He self-taught himself to do everything.”
Keeth strung together jobs picking fruit, baking and working at local automotive shops before spending 30 years as the shop foreman servicing vehicles on the federal Wapato Irrigation Project in the Yakima Valley. After retiring, Keeth volunteered at local parks and drove buses part time for the school district and fruit farmers.
Ruby Keeth cared for her husband until falling and breaking her hip, after which he moved to Hammond. Keeth was quickly embraced by local veterans and other volunteer organizations, who outfitted Barnett’s house with ramps for Keeth’s wheelchair and a specialized shower. He became especially popular at Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center, where he once visited for a doctor’s appointment and ended up having lunch with an entire troop.
“There were so many people wanting to meet him,” Barnett said. “Some grown men, my age, would walk away crying. He would remind them of someone in their family. They’d be so touched by meeting dad.
“At the end, they all said, ‘Thank you Mr. Keeth for joining us today.’ Camp Rilea was just amazing to dad.”
A memorial for Keeth will be held Saturday at Camp Rilea.