Pearl Harbor Survivor Robert Ruffato Returns to Hawaii

Reverend Robert Ruffato, survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, returned to Hawaii for the final Hawaii reunion of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The event coincides with the opening of the new Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. As an 18 year old Navy seaman, he was on the USS Utah when the Japanese began bombing Pearl Harbor.

Robert Ruffato is joined by his daughter Bobbie Jean for his third Pearl Harbor Survivors reunion in Hawaii. We talked with them at Duke’s Lagoon in Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii.

The audio on this video is poor due to high winds so we transcribed the conversation below. We recommend you read the transcription below before you watch the video.

Robert Ruffato Pearl Harbor Survivor

Reverend Robert Ruffato Member of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association with his daughter in Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii for the last Pearl Harbor Reunion

Robert Ruffato: “Now we train to go in and do at least three laps and also jump off of a platform with our life jackets on. But we had none of that (swimming) training. I just happened to be from California so I knew how to swim.”

Bobbie Jean: “He helped a buddy of his that could not swim go down into the water every time the Japanese were shooting down at them. He would say, “Hold your breath.” And he would pull him down with him.”

Robert: “See, after they dropped their bombs, they went around machine gunning everybody in the water and still aboard the ships until they ran out of ammunition. Then they went back to their ship. So we lost three eighteen year old kids who could not swim fifty yards that got killed.”

April M. Williams: “It was horrible to start with, but if you could have swum, you could have gotten yourself out of the water.”

Robert: “But we saved quite a few of them because after we finally swam over to a motor launch that was tied up at one of the little docks near where the ship was tied up to. We were going to get in this motor launch and pick up these survivors but I took the canvas off the motor and it was in the shed being repaired. All we could do was throw out about 12-14 life jackets to the kids in the water.”

“You want to talk about panic. You know what the old style life jackets are? Navy life jackets? They are real heavy. You couldn’t tear them apart but they tore them apart (fighting over them). Just panic, you know. It was just terrible.”

April: “What is the most memorable thing so far and about being back here?”

Robert: “Visiting the Utah mostly. We are doing that tonight. This evening. They have a sunset ceremony over there. Well it is just being back, it is such a beautiful place and everything. Mostly being with all my Pearl Harbor surviving friends you know. We were all here that day. Different ships, different places.”

“The part that really bothered me, of course, I’m an 18 year old kid and I had never seen a dead person before in my life. Also, I am surrounded by them you know. So we went toward this building which is not too far from the Utah. I was going to change into some khakis as we were covered in oil and sand. We were just wearing shorts and t-shirts”

“The chief said, “All you sailors that are not wounded, come out here, we are going to give you a thirty-aught-six and you are going to go out and shoot these airplanes as they go by.””

“Shoom! There is an airplane going by, I am standing there shooting at this airplane with a thirty-aught-six. Finally, the chief said, “I need a volunteer to take a pickup truck and go down to the other end of Ford Island where the dispensary is.”

It made a lot more sense to me than shooting at these airplanes. Even at 18 years that made more sense. But that almost cost me my life ‘cause coming across the airfield on the road that went down to the dispensary, these two airplanes came in. See, now some of these Japanese airplanes they had stationary (landing) gear. They don’t fold up. I saw the landing gear down and I figured they were one of our airplanes coming in. Then I looked at them and wondered why they were turning their lights on. But they were not turning their lights on; they were firing their machine guns. “

“All of a sudden, my truck started vibrating. I looked in the back window and the fire extinguisher was doing a dance while the bullets were hitting it. By the time I got to the end of the runway, the whole rear end of the truck was blown away. Not only that, in that truck the gas tank is right under your seat. So if they had hit that gas tank, goodbye!”

“The thing that really bothered me, when I went to pick up the medical supplies, the fellow says, “You are going to have to wait a minute, because we are packing up as many as we can as fast as we can. Go in the dispensary, maybe you can help the nurses out.””

“So I did and she says, “Here is a pack of cigarettes, go round and give cigarettes to the wounded.””

“I went to this one bed and this young guy about 18 year old kid with a sheet over him. Have you seen this Shroud of Turin, which is supposed to be the outline of Jesus? Well his body was outlined by the blood oozing out of his body. He was trying to tell me something. Evidently, he had been in a flash fire. All the hair was burned off of his head. The eyeballs, whites of his eyes, were actually red. He was trying to tell me something. So I leaned down to him, he said two words, “Why?” and “How?””

“Then he died. That was a bad part.”

“Then the second day, they put me and my friend on a burial party. It wasn’t really a burial party, it was a body recovery party. See all the bodies blown off the ships and everything. ‘Cause they have been in the water, first they sink. Then they come up 8 or 10 hours later. And my job was to get down and get as many (bodies) as I could get. They gave me they these little red things that looked like tongue depressors with a wire on them. They put a number on a box and a number of this wire and I was supposed to tie it on the toe.“

“The part that really bothered me, they did not have any coffins. Just big boxes, just to put them in. This one box had written in red paint. Why they wrote it in red paint, I don’t know. Maybe it was the only paint they had.”BODY PARTS ONLY”. If you got an arm or leg or something like that, you put it in that box. “

“That went on for about 4 hours. You grew up in a hurry that day. You were no longer a kid after that. Like they say, uh, boys became men. And men became a little older.”

April: “You were 18 then? How long did you serve?”

Robert: “Served 6 years in the Navy. If your ship was sunk or damaged where it couldn’t be repaired, you just went on other ships. We were going on the destroyer Jarvis, then the Warrant Officer of the Utah asked us where we were going. So we’re going to board the Jarvis. He said “No. Walk down to these docks down here and you will see a bunch of cruisers, and you pick out the ones with the most guns.” He said, “That’s what you do.””

“Of course the Utah did not have any guns. It was an anti aircraft training and target ship. We go out with the fleet and drop these 500-pound bombs. Water bombs and sand bombs and the ship had all these guns. Sixteen or eighteen inch guns. Eight five inch guns. All kinds of anti aircraft guns. Boy, that was for us. Why, anyone could just walk up and ask permission to come aboard. Tell the OD who we were and he says, “Come on.””

“And that was it. I spent three years on her. Like everybody else on the ship, on the ships. A lot of cruiser ships in Pearl Harbor that did not get damaged later where sunk in the battle of Guadalcanal. That was all we had to fight with, destroyers and cruisers. All the battleships were sunk. The Japanese had battleships, so we were actually fighting battleships with just cruisers. It cost a lot of ships around Guadalcanal.”

“Guadalcanal. We were building an airbase, airfield. Well, we would like to have it but we did not want them to have it. Because all the convoys going to Australia where within 100 miles of that airbase. Cause if they got that airbase built they could put their land-based bombers on it and sink every one of our convoys going to Australia, no problem. So, that’s it basically. So that’s my story.”

I am very grateful to have met several Pearl Harbor survivors on my travels to Hawaii. Many of these soldiers toured the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center last year for the final Pearl Harbor Survivors reunion. As they reach their 90’s it is harder for them to travel, especially long distances. Here are the stories of other Pearl Harbor survivors.

About April M. Williams

Traveler | Yogi | Foodie | Travel Blog Writer | Adventurer. Connect with me on Google. Email April.

%d bloggers like this: