On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, catching America’s Pacific Fleet by surprise. As ships burned and bombs fell, a lone American seaplane took off and turned north on a flight that nearly changed the history of World War II.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating. The pride of America’s Navy was sunk at anchor and more than two thousand were dead. Yet as quickly as the Japanese had attacked, they disappeared to sail home. Few realized just how close the Americans had come to spotting the Japan’s fleet that day.
It came down to one pilot, a newly commissioned, junior naval officer named Ensign Wesley Hoyt Ruth, who was assigned to Utility Squadron One (VJ-1). Five enlisted men came with him that day. His unit flew long-range scout seaplanes, a type called the Sikorsky JRS-1, a stripped down version of the S-43 “Baby Clipper” flying boats that Pan Am had on its Miami to Cuba passenger runs.
The JRS-1 was an unlikely combat plane. It was unarmed and unprepared for war. Its fuselage was polished aluminum, it wings and tail painted in bright yellow and orange so it could be easily seen in the air – a peacetime paint scheme that was changed once the war began. It was slow, with a cruise speed of just 95 kts, about one third the speed of a fighter plane. It lacked any steel plate for armor and carried no defensive machine guns either. Its only advantage was its range. Stripped down as the Navy versions were, it could fly more than 500 nautical miles – in other words, 250 miles out and then 250 miles back, if landing with almost no reserve fuel.
For Ensign Wes Ruth, Dec. 7, 1941, had begun as it always did, with breakfast at the Ford Island officers’ mess hall. At 7:00 am, as he was taking his first bites, he spotted what appeared to be several squadrons of airplanes descending toward Pearl Harbor. He thought they were Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft on exercises. Then the first bombs exploded at the Navy PBY seaplane base adjacent to the mess hall.
Leaving his breakfast at the table, he dashed outside and jumped into his personal car, a convertible sedan with the top down, and sped around the base toward his own squadron’s flight line. Above him, Japanese planes crisscrossed the sky, bombing and strafing all around him. Many other cars were strafed and everyone killed. Somehow, he made it.
He pulled up by his squadron’s hangars at the airfield’s northern edge. As he jumped from his car, 300 yards away, the battleship USS Arizona took a direct bomb hit in its forward powder magazine. The massive explosion pelted him and his car with bits of debris from the ship. In an instant, 1,177 men had died on USS Arizona. The ship was sunk without ever leaving the dockside.
Ensign West ran past a line of dead bodies and entered his squadron’s ready room. His squadron commander arrived and ordered a search patrol be launched, even as the Japanese were still attacking the base. Ensign Ruth was the only flight officer present, however, so he picked out five enlisted men as his crew – one was a copilot, another a radioman, and three were sailors.
They ran outside and climbed into one of the squadron’s ten seaplanes, all of which were miraculously undamaged. As he started the engines, another officer ran out and handed the three sailors the only weapons that could be found – three pre-war vintage M1903A3 Springfield bolt-action rifles – plus a handful of bullets. That was all they would have to defend themselves with if attacked by Japanese planes. As the seaplane had no gun stations, the sailors planned to fire the rifles out of the plane’s back windows.
As the Japanese attack subsided, Ensign Ruth took off. As he climbed upward, he looked over the chaos and devastation. Burning ships lined Battleship Row. He turned north, hoping to find the Japanese fleet and radio back their position before Japanese Zero fighters shot him down. It seemed like a suicide mission.
Ensign Ruth’s flight took him due north for 250 miles, then he planned to turn east, fly for 10 miles, and then turn back south to return to Oahu. Little did he know that at that moment the Japanese fleet was directly ahead, straight north of Oahu and only 220 miles away. The Japanese was sailing south toward Hawaii to shorten the distance the returning attackers would have to fly as they returned to land on their aircraft carriers.
For the next hour and a half, trailing far behind the faster Japanese planes, Ensign Ruth flew north. When the Japanese planes reached their aircraft carriers, their fleet altered its course to 315 degrees – heading northwest – to turn into the wind so the planes could land. It was a fateful turn because it took the fleet away from Ruth’s flight path.
As he flew along, Ensign Ruth realized that his only hope of survival if intercepted was to duck into a broken layer of clouds that were at 1,000 feet of altitude. He flew just underneath, scanning the waters below with his copilot and radio operator while the three sailors in the back stood by the windows with their Springfield rifles, scanning the skies for any enemy planes.
Less than hour later, unbeknownst to Ensign Ruth, his seaplane passed 30 miles from the Japanese Fleet. With half his fuel gone, Ruth turned his plane to the east into the blinding morning sun. Suddenly, the sailors in the back screamed that they saw some airplanes in the distance – these were probably the last of Japanese planes as they were circling to land, down-sun of Ensign Ruth’s seaplane.
He pulled up into the clouds and they flew onward for another ten miles – about ten minutes of flight time – and then cautiously descended, scanned the skies, and then turned back to the south. Had Ensign Ruth turned west instead of east, he would have flown directly toward the Japanese fleet and would have likely seen it. He was close enough – less than 30 miles – that he had even spotted some of the Japanese airplanes.
After turning south, Ensign Ruth flew another two and a half hours back across empty ocean toward Hawaii. As he neared Pearl Harbor, his crew spotted a lone airplane below. Thinking it might be Japanese, he turned and dove directly toward it. He planned to come up into it from underneath to give his three sailors a chance to aim their old Springfield rifles. The other plane proved faster, however, and Ruth couldn’t catch it. He gave up the chase and turned toward Ford Island to land.
A few weeks later, the Navy worked out that the plane he had seen was an American civilian plane. They had been out dropping parachutists that morning and had been completely unaware of the Japanese attack.
As Ruth circled to land, he looked across lines of sunk and damaged battleships, cruisers, and support ships in the harbor. The Japanese had destroyed the bulk of America’s Pacific Fleet. Then as he approached the runway, some American antiaircraft gun crews shot at his plane, thinking it was Japanese. He landed anyway, shut down the engines, and reported to the ready room for debriefing. His seaplane was loaded with depth charges and he was dispatched on another mission to hunt submarines outside of Pearl Harbor. He found none.
The Japanese fleet had slipped away undetected, though only by a hair’s breadth. In the weeks that followed, Ensign Ruth flew many more missions, mostly to document the destruction in the harbor. Except for a few photos taken from Japanese planes, Ensign Ruth’s squadron took almost all of the photos of Pearl Harbor, including most of those during the attack itself. As it happened, while Ensign Ruth was taking off, other photographers in his squadron were outside with their aircraft reconnaissance cameras taking photos of the Japanese attack.
Looking back, we have to wonder what might have happened had Ensign Ruth’s seaplane found the Japanese fleet. Most probably, an American counterattack would have been ordered. The US Navy’s three aircraft carriers were at sea that morning and were thus saved from the Japanese attack. On board they had several hundred American fighters and bombers.
There seems little doubt that they would have attacked the Japanese fleet. Probably, it would have gone badly. At the time, the superiority of Japan’s planes was not yet fully appreciated – particularly that of the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. As well, the US Navy wasn’t yet able to coordinate air attacks properly. In the months that followed, those lessons were learned well. Six months later, the stage was set for the Battle of Midway and the Americans capitalized on Japan’s vulnerabilities and sank most of its aircraft carriers.
Of course, we’ll never know for sure, but had Ensign Ruth spotted the Japanese ships, maybe there would have been no American aircraft carriers left afloat to turn the tide at the Battle of Midway.
The bravery of Ensign Ruth’s flight crew was ultimately recognized. His seaplane was among the very first planes to take off at Pearl Harbor – alone, unarmed (except for three rifles), and against all odds. He and his crew were awarded the Navy Cross.
Ensign Wes Ruth survived the war and lived to 101 years old, finally passing away on May 23rd, 2015. As for his Sikorsky JRS-1 – the very one he flew that day – it survived the war as well. The Smithsonian plans to restore it as it was on December 7th, 1941 – bright yellow and orange wings and all.
Thomas Van Hare
Thomas “Tango” Van Hare is an author, former search and rescue pilot, and the founder of Historic Wings, a YouTube aviation channel and online magazine published since 1997. He is a former White House and senior Pentagon official who served in “Charlie Wilson’s War” against the Soviets during their long war in Afghanistan and most recently lead an effort to rescue 261 Afghans who were left behind when the US and NATO withdrew in August 2021. These days, he designs war games, the first of which, Tally-Ho!, is available on Amazon.com.
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