Kenneth Ruiz knows he’s a lucky man. It’s not a Vegas kind of luck that follows you to the tables. It’s the kind of luck you need to survive battles in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Sure, it takes skill to be a Navy officer rising through the ranks over the course of a 30-year career — captaining warships, piloting planes and launching submarine torpedoes. But Ruiz, 92 and a Henderson resident, knows both skill and luck have kept him alive on more than a few occasions.
In 2006, Ruiz, with the help of writer John Bruning, published his book, “The Luck of the Draw.” In it he recounts his early Navy days and battle experiences in World War II. When he graduated from the Naval Academy in the summer of 1942, America, still bruising from the attack on Pearl Harbor, was sending Naval officers to war. He quickly got onto the cruiser Vincennes, which did bombardment support for the Marine division going in for the landing at Guadalcanal.
On the night of Aug. 9, 1942, Ruiz drew cards with another officer to see who would hold watch from the captain’s bridge — Ruiz won. But within hours his friend was dead, the Vincennes was in flames and sinking, and Ruiz would swim for nine hours in blood-filled, shark-infested water hoping for the arrival of a U.S. ship to rescue him.
The water also had a quarter-inch thick layer of NSFO (Navy standard fuel oil). He gagged and his eyes burned as he clung to pieces of the Vincennes, rafts and swam when he had to. His greatest concern was the NSFO igniting like it had in the Pearl Harbor attack. But he counts his good fortune for it not happening.
He was one of only a few men without a life vest that survived the surprise Japanese attack, known as the Battle of Savo Island. The 34-minute battle not only took down the Vincennes, but also Quincy, Astoria and Canberra while damaging Chicago, killing more than 1,200 people.
“There was no killing at that rate anywhere in World War II. That was actually the worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Navy,” Ruiz said.
So why does Savo Island get so little attention?
“People don’t like to write about defeats. They write about victories, right? But if you’re in it, you have no choice. You have to write about what you know,” Ruiz said. “In those days the Japanese were winning the war, and for months after that, one day we’d be winning, one day they’d be winning.”
Ruiz wrote “The Luck of the Draw” at the urging of his grandchildren. His follow-up book, due out soon, will be called “Three War Captain” and will chronicle his post-World War II service.
After Savo Island, Ruiz spent years on the USS Pollack, a 1935-built submarine with few redeeming qualities. It could only dive 250 feet while others could be pushed to 500 or 600 feet. In addition, torpedo-firing technology was evolving, and there were plenty of glitches.
“There were about five different torpedo problems at the time, and we had all of them,” he said.
There were early explosions after launches, torpedoes hitting the side of a ship and never exploding at all, but the worst was a rudder lock — a circular move where the torpedo would come back and hit its own submarine. Pollack had it happened once, knocking out its power for a period of time.
The crew knew that all the Japanese had to do was follow the trail of a torpedo to find an enemy submarine. Frantic moments coupled with those of odd, eerie silence were relieved when the engines and power fired back up. Ruiz was lucky again.
The Navy man spent his 21st, 22nd and 23rd birthdays in combat, making eight war patrols and firing more than 40 torpedoes, participating in 30 engagements on a submarine that damaged more than 50,000 tons of Japanese shipping.
By 1944, he was overexposed to combat. His knees would shake badly before launching a torpedo and he would have to steady them against the target-bearing transmitter before he was able to make his shot.
“Normally you track a convoy for hours, then it’s time to turn in and you attack. At that time you knew in very few minutes a lot of people were going to die, and it could be you, too,” he said.
After World War II, Ruiz went through flight training and was executive officer, then commanding officer of jet carrier squadrons. He attended Harvard’s Advanced Management Program, then captained USS Bon Homme Richard, one of the most productive carriers in the Vietnam War. It shot down more MiGs than any other carrier in the war up to that time and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and two Navy Unit Commendations.
But Ruiz was also vocal in his disapproval of the way the Vietnam War was run. In his view, the conflict could have ended early if Naval forces didn’t need constant approvals for certain types of attacks.
“We could’ve ended the war three or four years earlier,” he said. “I probably was not selected for promotion to admiral because I was too outspoken with my objections to the way the war was run. But if you don’t like it, you need to speak up.”
While at Harvard’s Advanced Management School, he met numerous future leaders of national and international private institutions, among them former Japanese naval officer Kaneo Nakamura, who later became chairman of the Industrial Bank of Japan. Ruiz describes the one-time war adversary as “a good guy” with a great sense of humor.
“He used to tell me ‘all you white people look the same to me,’ ” Ruiz said with a laugh.
Ruiz’s fascination with the Navy began as a young man. While living in Long Beach, Calif., he regularly saw the carriers Saratoga and Lexington docked at the nearby harbor.
“Every day I’d see those two carriers. Sometimes you’d see airplanes on them. I’d say, ‘That’s what I’d like to do one day is fly one of those planes off one of those carriers,’ ” Ruiz said. “I had no concept I’d be in command of one.”
Ruiz has seen more than his share of war in a 33-year Navy career. He’s far from a proponent of it, and opposes statements such as Madeleine Albright’s: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” She made the comment to Colin Powell in the 1990s regarding U.S. efforts during the war in Bosnia.
“War is hell,” he said. “At a conference with civilians and military members, a question comes up on going into combat, most the civilians will vote ‘yes.’ And most of the military will vote ‘no.’ ”