U.S. Navy Ensign Duty Officer Wes Ruth was having breakfast on Dec. 7, 1941, when he heard bombs begin to fall on Honolulu.
Ruth, 99, lives in Matthews at Plantation Estates and in honor of Veterans Day Sunday, Nov. 11, shared his story this week with Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly.
“I ran out and saw the bombs dropping, and I immediately knew what the problem was,” Ruth said.
The then 28-year-old pilot for a photography squadron was surrounded by naval families, women and children who were “just as frightened as we were,” he said.
Despite his fear of being seen, Ruth headed to an airplane hangar, driving around the north end of the runway when the USS Arizona was hit with an armor-piercing bomb that took the lives of 1,177.
Aircraft and submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor and the naval base before 8 a.m.
Arriving at the hangar shortly after, Ruth was immediately thrown into danger.
“They put me on the first plane,” he said.
Ruth piloted a JRS plane – a high-wing, twin-engine amphibian, non-combat plane as a member of a utility squadron stationed at Ford Island.
“We were ordered to search for the Japanese fleet and report back,” Ruth said. “We were the first plane out, with our flight plan to go 250 miles due north, turn east for 10 miles and then return to the base.”
Ruth said his plane was usually unarmed, since it was used by a photography squadron, but this time, he was brought several World War I-era Springfield rifles.
“We would have had to shoot through the glass to use them,” Ruth explained. “They were completely useless.”
For Ruth, those rifles signified something that would later earn him the top honor the United States Navy can bestow.
“When they brought me the Springfields, I thought, ‘Wow, this might be a one-way trip.’”
For Ruth, though, that was all part of the job.
“When you’re in for so long, you follow instructions,” he said. “I wasn’t scared, there’s really no room to be scared. I just followed my orders.”
Ruth said his reconnaissance flight recovered no sign of the fleet, but that “our search plane may have been the closest search plane to the Japanese fleet that day while they were recovering their aircraft aboard carriers.
We saw one plane when we got about five miles north of Oahu. It followed us for a short distance, but did not attack us.”
Ruth said he might have been more concerned, even scared, had he known the magnitude of what was happening.
“I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know, or I might have been scared,” he said. “But I felt it was something I was ordered to do and I was going to do it.”
Ruth said the next few days at Pearl Harbor were spent awaiting orders and worrying that the Japanese would return.
“We just didn’t know if that was the end of it,” he said.
For his bravery that day, Ruth was awarded the Naval Cross.
His award letter reads:
“For extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy and for extraordinary courage and disregard for his own safety… Although contact with the enemy meant almost certain destruction and despite lack of armament in this type of plane… only through prompt and extremely skillful handling of his plane did he succeed in escaping and returning to Pearl Harbor… 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.”
Ruth’s younger brother, Tommy, also in the Navy during the war, died June 30, 1943, when his plane was shot down off Munda Point.
Ruth retired from the Navy in 1960 as a Commander after 20 years of service. He then worked in civil service until 1980.
He had two sons and a daughter, and is now grandfather to eight and great grandfather to 18. One of his sons and a grandson are currently in the Navy.