Captain Kenneth Ruiz calls surviving three wars just ‘the luck of the draw.’
On August 8, 1942, newly commissioned Ensign Kenneth Ruiz drew cards with a fellow officer to determine who would have the privilege of manning a battle station on the captain’s bridge of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser Vincennes off the coast of Guadalcanal. Ruiz drew high card and won. That night Vincennes was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island. Ruiz survived. His friend did not. From that fateful night to the moment he retired 30 years and three wars later, Ruiz felt he lived with the luck of the draw. One of the very few Navy men who served on, below and above the sea on warships, a submarine and aircraft, Ruiz told his remarkable story when Doug Pricer interviewed him at his home in Las Vegas.
Military History: Where were you when the United States entered World War II in December 1941, and how did you come to be on Vincennes?
Ruiz: I was still at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. We were scheduled to graduate in 1943, but they let us out a year early, in 1942. I was only 20 years old. We were given our assignments in June before graduation. That’s when I found out I was going to Vincennes. Vincennes had been one of the escorts for Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s Tokyo raiders aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet in April 1942. They were in a real hurry to get us out there of course, so we went on a transport to Pearl Harbor and then out to Fiji. I’d just turned 21 on July 11 when we hit Fiji. It was the first time I was legally able to buy a bottle of beer. I was pretty impressed. I’d never been outside of the United States except for Mexico, and there were the Fijian policemen in their lava-lavas with their red hair sticking straight up. It was very impressive. We left Suva on transports with the Marines and rendezvoused in the Koro Sea. That was the biggest group of ships I’d ever seen and probably the biggest task force the United States had ever put together. Ships came from all over, battleships, cruisers—and they all met in the middle of the ocean. It was just amazing. I went aboard Vincennes.
MH: The Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. What was your role after that?
Ruiz: It was really something. We had gotten aboard the ship and were given our assignments. One battle station was on the captain’s bridge, and one was on the signal bridge. The other ensign—a guy named Art Kiirck—and I both wanted to be on the captain’s bridge—Vincennes was the flagship, and we knew that all the action would be on the captain’s bridge. We decided to draw cards—high card got the captain’s bridge—and I won. The irony was that Art was dead within 48 hours. The entire signal bridge was wiped out, and he was killed. It was the second night after the Marines had landed. We were expecting the battle to take place the next morning, and were surprised that the General Quarters went off at 1 a.m. We all headed for our battle stations. No one could see anything in the dark, and didn’t really know who was shooting at us. I got on the radio to report to the captain the situation from all parts of the ship, so I knew they were shooting at us.
MH: Japanese Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa had managed to slip through with a cruiser force that night and caught the Allied cruisers completely by surprise. He managed to do a lot of damage.
Ruiz: It was very frightening. Vincennes probably took more hits from heavy shells than any other cruiser in the history of warfare. She was hit by hundreds of shells. But the captain was just absolutely convinced that we were being fired on by our own ships and would not open fire. I’ve never understood why that happened. We took a hit from a main battery salvo on our No. 2 turret, which was right in front of the bridge. When the shells hit that turret they knocked it right off the barbette, and we all got knocked off our feet. It killed a number of people on the bridge. I was lucky the lee helmsman happened to step in front of me just as the shell hit, and he took all the shrapnel that was coming my way. He was knocked up against me, and I grabbed him. I could feel him go limp and eased him down to the deck. Then I realized he was almost cut in half. He was dead.
MH: Was there any semblance of order?
Ruiz: Oh, yes. The men on the bridge were very professional and just kept doing their jobs. They just did the best they could, but our communications were disintegrating pretty fast. Those phones worked great, but when they were damaged and the men using them were dying, it was not so good. As a matter of fact I recall my friend, a guy named Atwell, coming up to me. He said, “Hey Ken, check this.” He’d caught a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder about the size of a tennis ball. He’d stuffed a handkerchief in it, and when he pulled out the handkerchief the blood spurted out all over. I thought he’d never make [it] in the water, but he made it. I asked him the next day how the hell he swam all night with that wound. Turns out he’d been on the swimming team at Yale.
MH: Were you one of the last to abandon ship?
Ruiz: Yes. I knew she was sinking, and I wanted to stay aboard as long as I could—especially since I didn’t have a life jacket. So I stayed until the water was waist deep on the main deck, then just took off my shoes and swam off. That was almost a mistake, because I stepped off on the low side where she was turning. When I got off she turned completely, and the mast came crashing down right next to me and almost killed me. I was so scared it was unbelievable, but the survival instinct was so strong it just took over. I was just looking for a way to live. I swam away from the ship as fast as I could because I was afraid of the suction when she went down. I wasn’t too far from the ship when she went down, but I did not see or feel any suction at all. I was very happy about that!
MH: So you were in the dark water with no flotation. What was your biggest concern?
Ruiz: The NSFO [Navy standard fuel oil] in the water. I’d heard of so many men burning to death at Pearl Harbor when the oil caught fire. I couldn’t think of a worse way to die. There was about a quarter inch floating on the surface. It gagged me and burned my eyes, but for some reason—again, the luck of the draw—it never caught fire.
MH: Could you tread water in that oil?
Ruiz: A little. But after awhile I found a shell casing and hung on to that for a while until that sank. Then I saw a raft with many men on it. The captain was on it, trying to help the most severely wounded. One guy swam up to it and was in real trouble. I offered to help him onto the raft, but he told me his legs were blown off and that he was bleeding to death. I swam away from that raft. There was so much blood in the water I was afraid of sharks. I eventually found a boat boom. A boat boom is like a telephone pole about 40 feet long—and there were at least 100 men hanging onto it. It was so crowded that all I could do was get a hand on it— it was very slippery due to the oil in the water, and men kept slipping off. It was really tough. We hung on all night.
MH: How were you rescued?
Ruiz: In the morning we saw a ship in the distance. We couldn’t tell who it was, and everyone thought it was a Jap because they would have naturally been patrolling the area. We knew that if it was a Jap ship we were going to be killed or spend the rest of the war in a prison camp. The anxiety was very, very high among everybody there. It gradually came closer, and we could see it was a destroyer—then finally we could see that it was an American destroyer. It was the happiest moment of my life—even though it left for a while to depth charge a Jap sub and then came back to pick us up. It was Mugford.
MH: When did you get back to Pearl Harbor?
Ruiz: Within about two weeks. When we got to Pearl they told all of us to assemble in ranks on the starboard deck. We heard the admiral piped aboard, and it was Chester W. Nimitz. He gave us a speech. He told us that we were not to talk about what had happened. He also told us that we’d taken some damage but that one of our submarines had sunk the Jap cruiser that had hit us [S-44 had, in fact, sunk Kako as it returned to its base at Kavieng]. He really dangled the bait. He told us our subs were really doing a great job against the Japs and that if anyone there wanted to get back at the Japs there were positions available in the submarine service. “My staff officer is right here,” he said. “Just let him know, and he’ll sign you up.”
MH: How many of you volunteered?
Ruiz: Three. We had a choice. The other two guys were senior to me and had first choice. Sometimes when you win you lose. The guy who had first choice picked a sub that was hit. He was dead in six months. Again, the luck of the draw. I had never been to the sub school, so I was trained at sea. I finally qualified for my gold dolphins right before my fourth patrol.
MH: How many war patrols did you go on?
Ruiz: Eight. By the end of my last patrol, I’d served under three captains, we’d participated in 30 engagements, and I’d aimed and fired more than 40 torpedoes. We’d damaged more than 50,000 tons of Japanese shipping. The men I served with were extraordinary.
MH: Didn’t the stress of eight undersea patrols get to you?
Ruiz: Well, stress is cumulative. It had started to build after Vincennes. I’d built up quite a bit of stress. They didn’t treat it in those days. They hardly knew what it was. I’d have stayed out as long as they told me to, but by the time they sent me home
MH: What happened after Korea?
Ruiz: From 1958 to 1959 I took the toughest job I ever had in the Navy. I became the executive officer on the carrier Constellation. I had to take 5,000 men and train them on a rusting hulk and make it run like a carrier.
MH: What were your goals after that assignment?
Ruiz: I wanted to command a carrier, but the Navy has a very tough selection process. There are only 12 carriers in the Navy. A candidate has to know how to run a deep-draft ship. So they gave me command of an ammunition ship to train me on how to run a deep-draft ship. I spent two years doing that. Then they told me I was up for a carrier but that they didn’t have one ready yet. They told me I needed more schooling and asked me if I wanted to go to the National War College. That was a ticket to flag rank, so I took it. After I finished in 1966, they said a carrier would be ready in six months. I had two choices while I was waiting: a study group at the Pentagon, or the Harvard Business School. It took about a microsecond to make that call—I took Harvard. After I finished there, I went directly to command Bon Homme Richard for two deployments in Vietnam—a little over two years. We worked off North Vietnam the whole time. That tour in 1967 was probably the best tour that Bon Homme Richard ever had—maybe even the best of any carrier in the Vietnam War.
Ruiz: We shot down more MiGs with my Air Wing 21 than all the other carriers in the entire war up to that date. But there was also a price for it. In May and June I lost 21 aircraft and left 10 guys up in the Hanoi Hilton as POWs. Every squadron commander and every executive officer was shot down. So it was tough. You have to understand the North Vietnamese were pretty good. They were tough.
MH: What kinds of weapons did you use?
Ruiz: We flew Vought F-8 Crusaders and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks. We also introduced the Walleye missile into combat. We were the first wing to go “downtown.” We went in with the Walleye missile and attacked the thermal power plant in downtown Hanoi. I wanted to go in with six missiles, but they only let me use two. But we still flew one through a window in that power plant and knocked it out. We had to fight our way downtown and shot down four MiGs on the way in. We lost three airplanes going in. One of those that hit the plant came off the attack with fires burning in three places on the plane—we got him back aboard, but the plane never flew again.
MH: It was a tough war politically.
Ruiz: Yes it was. One of the toughest parts was the rules of engagement. I remember we’d see the Russian ships go right by us on their way to Hanoi with trucks lashed to the deck and missiles in the holds. We knew that we’d be chasing those trucks and dodging those missiles in a few weeks. It was tough to have to explain that to my commanders why we couldn’t attack those bastards and equally tough for them to have to explain it to their junior officers.
MH: So all in all you went from Guadalcanal to the submarine Pollack, to Korea to two carrier deployments in Vietnam. Looking back on all of that, do you have any regrets?
Ruiz: No. I think I pretty much did what I wanted to do. I had trained my whole life to command a carrier, and I did it. That was the high point for me. I consider myself very lucky to be alive and very privileged to have served my country.
For further reading, Huntington Beach, Calif.–based contributor Doug Pricer recommends The Luck of the Draw, by U.S. Navy Captain Kenneth Ruiz (ret.).
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.