|“Battleship Row in Flames” by John Hamilton
In looking for material for today’s post on the 72nd anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor, I came across the story of Wesley Ruth. Mr. Ruth lives in Matthews, North Carolina and is one of the older survivors of that day at age 100. At the time, he was a young Navy ensign assigned to an unarmed photography squadron as a pilot. He was having breakfast that Sunday morning when the attack began. When he saw the Japanese bombers, he jumped into his convertible and drove to the north end of Oahu to get a handle on what was happening.
“I was about a quarter-mile from the Arizona and I saw the Arizona bombed. There were powder pellets about the size of my finger that flew that distance, from the ship to me, coming down on me just like snow.”
Worried the Japanese would spot his convertible and strafe him, Ruth said, he headed for the airfield and passed the clinic on his way. “I could see a number of dead bodies on the lawn.”
After arriving at the airfield, Ruth was assigned to a reconnaissance mission: find the Japanese fleet. His plane was a Silkorsky S-43 which the Navy had renumbered as the JRS-1. The S-43 or Navy JRS-1 amphibian was primarily used as a passenger plane by Pan American Airlines for trips to Cuba and Latin America. It was nicknamed the “Baby Clipper”. Ruth was to fly 250 miles north and 10 miles east along with a copilot and three observers to find the Japanese. His armament for this mission were three bolt-action Springfield rifles given to the guys in the back of the plane. The JRS-1 would have been easy pickings for any Japanese Zero but Ensign Ruth had a mission and he did it.
For this mission, Ensign Ruth was award the Navy Cross. His citation reads as follows:
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Wesley H. Ruth, Lieutenant, Junior Grade [then Ensign], U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of an airplane, and for extraordinary courage and disregard of his own safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. Although contact with the enemy meant almost certain destruction and despite lack of armament in this type of plane, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Ruth voluntarily piloted a JRS amphibian plane, with only Springfield rifles, in search of and to obtain information of the enemy forces. At a point two hundred miles north of Oahu, Lieutenant Ruth did contact an enemy aircraft and only through prompt and extremely skillful handling of his plane did he succeed in escaping and returning to Pearl Harbor. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Ruth’s outstanding courage, daring airmanship and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
While his citation says they encountered an enemy aircraft, Ruth in his interview says they didn’t encounter anything. It really doesn’t matter in the long run. Taking off in an unarmed plane – I don’t count the guys with the Springfield rifles – and completing his mission knowing the whole time he was a sitting duck is heroic enough for me.
Ensign Ruth went on to complete a Navy career of 20 years and retired as a Commander. I can only hope that his final few years are easy ones because he already did the hard part 72 years ago.