Lyon Air Museum Docent Bob Ruiz vividly recalls his first mission as a 21 year-old pilot of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber over occupied Europe. “It was a Sunday, and the sky was clear and blue. I was the pilot in the left seat, but since it was my first mission a more experienced pilot in the right seat was actually flying the airplane” Bob remembers. “So, I was basically observing everything the co-pilot did. As we approached the target near Hannover, the Germans opened up on us with flak and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The plane began to shake violently as explosions filled the sky around us. I looked out the window to my left, where another B-24 was flying right off our wingtip. In a split second the plane took a direct hit, and exploded into pieces before my eyes. A few minutes later German fighters attacked, and one of the gunners in the back of my plane reported seeing four B-24s getting shot down right behind us. At that moment I remember thinking, what in the world did I get myself in to?”
Army Air Forces Cadet Bob Ruiz
Bob is a native of California, from the beach community of La Jolla, just north of San Diego. Graduating from high school in 1941, Bob saw the direction of his life change dramatically on December 7 of that year with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was shortly thereafter, in early 1942, that he took his entrance exams for the Army Air Forces (AAF). “I chose the AAF because I didn't want to end up like those poor guys in World War I, in the trenches. AAF airmen also got paid better, and had better food and accommodations.”
In the fall of 1942 Bob was called up, and classified as a pilot. Before he began flight training he was sent to the University of Montana in Missoula for a semester of classes, mostly in mathematics. Upon his return he spent fifteen months training at bases around the western United States before earning his pilot wings in Douglas, Arizona. He then was sent for B-24 pilot training in Pueblo, Colorado, where he was assigned a crew. After three months of training together they were assigned to the 8th Air Force, and shipped out to Hethel, England - headquarters of the 389th Bomb Group. They arrived by boat in July of 1944, just one month after D-Day.
Over the subsequent months Bob and his crew flew bombing missions to some of the most protected, fortified and valuable targets in Germany. As the Allies hoped to end the war by Christmas of that year, the push to irrevocably cripple the German war machine was both constant and relentless. Despite the inherent danger, and the increasing desperation of the Germans to defend the skies over their homeland, fear was seldom on the minds of the young crew. “We were all young, under 25 years old. In fact, two of my gunners were only 17 and 18 years old. Our oldest crew member was the radio operator, and he was 24. We didn't really consider the danger, because at that age you feel invincible.”
There were times, however, when Bob was reminded of the seriousness of their task. “I remember there was a Catholic AAF chaplain we called Pappy, and he would hold communion in the barracks before each mission. One of my most vivid memories is when we would taxi to the runway for takeoff on a bombing mission, and Pappy would be standing on the edge of the threshold, getting blasted by prop wash, blessing every airplane that left.”
Occasionally there were respites, such as when the notorious English weather would make it impossible to fly. When that happened the men would make due the best they could. “We played cards in our quarters, which was nothing more than a quonset hut divided into four rooms” Bob recalls. “Also, every three or four weeks we would get passes to go to London, where we would spend a couple of days blowing off steam. The city was only about two hours away from our base by train. That was our R&R (Rest and Relaxation).”
One day Bob was in the administration building of group headquarters in Hethel when he recognized a tall, lanky man standing in a doorway. It was none other than Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart, who had recently been assigned to the bombardment group as a pilot. Bob remembers “Jimmy Stewart and I flew several missions together. There was one particular mission to Berlin when I was flying off Stewart’s wing, and it seemed like the Germans knew exactly which plane he was flying. They were throwing everything they had at him; I was sure they were going to get shot down, which would have been a huge propaganda prize for the Germans. His plane made it back from that mission, as it did from all the missions he flew.” It was 40 years later in 1984 that Bob met Stewart again at a bomb group reunion in Palm Springs. “I asked him if he remembered me, and he did as I was the only Hispanic-American pilot in the bombardment group.”
Bob (left, sitting on the hood of Jeep) and the rest of his crew relaxing between missions.
It was on a mission in the spring of 1945 when Bob earned his Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). “The mission was to Berlin, which was protected by the ring of fire, which meant the whole city was surrounded on all sides by flak and AAA batteries. It was also a clear day, which meant we would not have any cloud cover to help obscure us from German ground fire” Bob recalls. “We lost one engine to flak damage over the target and on our way home over the English Channel another engine quit, also from flak damage sustained over the target. I told my crew, as soon as you spot the English coastline start looking for somewhere to land the airplane, because we are not going to make it back to our base. We ended up landing at a Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield not far from the coast. I did not have any flaps and my brakes were damaged, so I used every inch of that runway. We actually ended up going off the end, but thankfully it was still level ground. I will never forget the hugs I got from my boys when we got off that airplane.” Bob’s skilled flying not only saved the aircraft, but more importantly the lives off all the men on board the crippled bomber.
Bob and his crew completed their 35 missions in April of 1945, just weeks before the end of the war in Europe. He flew a B-24 from England to a base in Connecticut, where he then caught a train headed for home in California. He was given a month off before being scheduled to start B-29 pilot training to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Coincidentally, Bob’s older brother Ramon was already a B-29 pilot, also training for the upcoming invasion. Thankfully, that invasion never occurred and the two brothers survived the war, unscathed.
Leaving the service at the conclusion of the war, Bob used the GI Bill to obtain a degree in Geography from San Diego State University. Briefly called up for the Korean conflict, a surplus of pilots resulted in him being released after only a few weeks. He went on to enjoy a successful business career, where he co-owned a company specializing in product packaging.
1st Lieutenant Bob Ruiz smiling in front of a B-24 Liberator.
Now long retired Bob spends much of his time volunteering, where he speaks about his experiences piloting a heavy bomber during the war. At Lyon Air Museum he helps educate students from local school districts on the service and sacrifices of those who served so selflessly. He also donates his time to the Freedom Committee of Orange County, where he gives talks to schools, clubs and organizations. In addition, he also helps organize Honor Flights to Washington DC for veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to see the memorials that have been erected in honor of their service and that of their comrades, many of whom never made it home.
Bob Ruiz gave everything he had to achieve victory for the Allies and a European continent free from tyranny. As the years since the end of World War II recede behind us, we must never forget the countless Americans who boldly and bravery answered the call to defend freedom in the world, and sustain the bold, inalienable principles on which our nation was founded - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Article By, Docent Dan Heller