At Pearl Harbor, This Aircraft Risked It All to Find the Japanese Fleet

The Sikorsky JRS-1 flew right through the middle of it on December 7, 1941

Sikorsky JRS-1
The Sikiorsky JRS-1 "was right in the middle of it,” Robinson says. “She went out along with other airplanes from the (Navy) Utility Squadron One searching for the Japanese fleet.” NASM

It was the morning of December 7, 1941, and Navy ensign Wesley Hoyt Ruth was having breakfast in the bachelor’s quarters on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese planes roared in and began dropping bombs.

“I knew right away what was happening, so I grabbed my coat and hat,” Ruth told the Charlotte Observer in a 2011 interview. “I got into my convertible and drove up to the north end of the island, and at that point I was about a quarter mile from the USS Arizona, and I saw the Arizona bombed.”

The first surprise Japanese attack happened at 7:55 a.m., and the next about an hour later. Scores of planes dropped torpedoes, destroying huge battleships, more than 300 planes and nearly 20 Naval vessels. More than 2,000 Americans died, and more than 1,000 were wounded. The attack forced America into World War II.

On Ford Island, Ruth was getting into the pilot seat of a Sikorsky JRS-1, a large amphibian plane with both landing gear and floaters.

“I had a co-pilot, a radio man and three sailors . . . and just before I left the line the senior officer brought out three Springfield rifles for us to use to shoot at the Japanese which was a hopeless cause,” Ruth recalled, “because the enemy had cannons in their fighters and we didn’t have a chance. But we were the first planes off of Pearl Harbor.”

Sikorsky JRS-1
“When people see her," says the Smithsonian's Pat Robinson, "we remember what happened to the country and the people who lost their lives that day.” NASM

The Sikorsky JRS-1 Ruth flew that day is now in the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It is currently on display at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.

Museum Specialist Pat Robinson says the 1938 plane is one of only about seven surviving aircraft that were at Pearl Harbor on that day, and it is the only aircraft in the museum’s collection that was stationed there during the December 7 attack. Robinson’s very attached to the plane, and still a bit awed by what it achieved in the middle of chaos.

“She was right in the middle of it,” Robinson says. “She went out along with other airplanes from the (Navy) Utility Squadron One searching for the Japanese fleet.”

Amazingly, Ruth got the Sikorsky airborne in the middle of a barrage of American anti-aircraft fire, and nearly accomplished the mission.

“We know that it came within 30 to 40 miles of the Japanese fleet–it just about found them,” Robinson says. “There was the tragedy of losing lots of airplanes coming in from the USS Enterprise were getting shot down by their own anti-aircraft fire. But (the Sikorsky) got airborne with no incident.”

Wes Ruth, Pearl Harbor Anniversary Talk, 7 December 2011

Five of the ten Sikorskys in Hawaii launched and went looking for the Japanese fleet. Ruth and the four other pilots, along with one Marine, later received the Navy Cross. (Ruth died at the age of 101, on May 23, 2015.) Robinson says they weren’t armed defensively at the time. They could carry depth charges to attack a submarine but those were no good against an airplane. But there were crew members hanging out of the plane’s back door with firearms, though they could do little against the Japanese aircraft.

“I flew along about a thousand feet just below the clouds because I wanted to duck into the clouds in case I did see anything [and] they wouldn’t see me,” Ruth recalled. “I went out to about 250 miles north and turned east and didn’t see anything because they had turned northwest to recover their planes. They came in due south and turned northwest.”

Robinson says the next challenge for the crew of the Sikorsky was to get back to base safely.

“They’ve gotta come back and how do we get back in without our own people shooting us down,” Robinson says the crew must have been thinking. The Sikorskys landed back on Ford Island after being gone for five hours with no incident. 

The Sikorsky JRS-1 that Ruth flew was the 13th built by the company, and was delivered to the Navy on July 28, 1938. It was assigned to Utility Squadron One (VJ-1),  the fleet’s photographic unit, at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, on August 3 of that year.

It is the only surviving JRS-1 amphibian. The plane, Navy bureau number 1063, arrived at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in July of 1940, where it was assigned to Ford Island. The JRS-1 amphibians flew many missions searching for the Japanese fleet and looking for Japanese submarines. The Smithsonian’s JRS stopped flying such missions on September 5, 1942, and was shipped to California for an overhaul. It was later assigned to the Commander Fleet Airship Wing 31 at Moffett Field in 1943 before being stricken from active service August 31, 1944 and put into storage.

Remembrances of Pearl Harbor with Wes Ruth

But the JRS-1 wasn’t done yet.

Robinson says it was taken out of storage in 1946 and flown to NACA Langley, a precursor of NASA in 1946, and used in a study. When it was returned to storage at Bush Field, Georgia, someone noticed the December 7 logbook entry and bought it to the attention of the Smithsonian, which asked that the JRS-1 be transferred to its collection. Officially accepted into the collections in 1960, the aircraft was moved to the Udvar-Hazy Center in March of 2011. Robinson says it means a lot to have it on display.

“It was there. . . . It represents the day. It’s the airplane equivalent of the USS Arizona,” Robinson says. “When people see her … we remember the day and what happened to the country and the people who lost their lives that day.”

The JRS-1 is the military version of a a 15-seat passenger plane called the S43. Fifty three were made, and the Navy bought 17 of them. Two were given to the Marine Corps., the U.S. Army got five, and two were built for private use by Harold Vanderbilt and tycoon Howard Hughes. Museum Specialist Robinson calls the Sikorsky a jack of all trades that got all of the non-Hollywood jobs in the Navy.

“She’s an amphibian, and equally comfortable in the water or on land, which is one of the unique things about an aircraft that can do both,” Robinson explains. “It’s a utility aircraft. … it’s a pick-up truck, it’s a van. It moves critical personnel around. It moves parts, it goes out and tows targets so the fighting outfits can shoot at the sleeves (a long streamer towed behind an aircraft used for target practice).”

But Robinson says the photographic unit Utility Squadron One played a major role after the Pearl Harbor attack.

“Anytime anyone needed photographs of ships at sea or of shore  installations, Utility Squadron One was the one you could call,” Robinson says. “The balance of the photographs that you and I see today of the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ones taken from the air, were taken by Utility Squadron One. They were trying to assess what kind of damage do we have, what’s still good. They were taking pictures of airfields and the harbor itself to get an idea of what happened.”

Robinson calls the plane a time capsule. The blue paint on the JRS-1 was applied in the days right after the attack as personnel tried to tone down the bright colors the aircraft had been painted before the war. She had a silver fuselage and the wings were orange-yellow.

“The blue paint was applied very quickly and as it has faded you can see the handstrokes of where the individual was spraying the airplane, the movement of his hands,” Robinson says. “We can see underneath the original pre-war, the very proud colors she wore, and the logo of Utility Squadron One is still there.”

It is a pelican carrying the mail, with a photographer in its beak, and little puffs of smoke coming out behind him.

Robinson says preserving aircraft such as the Sikorsky is important to museum personnel doing restorations. The JRS-1 is not currently being restored but she is high on the list. With the Sikorsky, Robinson says the museum has the “book ends” on American involvement in World War II. The JRS-1 was there the day of the attack, the museum also has the B26 “Flak Bait” that flew two missions on D-Day, and the Enola Gay, which ended the conflict.

“We want to do the best job possible to make sure the artifacts are preserved for all eternity for generations and generations from now on they’ll be there. People will understand the evolution of technology and the role they played in the history of this country and of aviation,” he says.

But the Sikorsky has a special message for those who see it.

“It represents America being dragged into that conflict against its will and how we rallied to respond to it,” Robinson says. “It’s like Ground Zero in New York. It’s a reminder. Don’t forget remain vigiliant. It’s like she’s talking to you saying don’t forget.”

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