News: Final Tribute from Fighting 69th for WWII Comrade, National Hero
Story by Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg
NEW YORK - Leaders of the New York Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, the Army's famous "Fighting 69th," will pay their final respects in California this weekend to Alejandro R. Ruiz, a former comrade and Medal of Honor recipient.
Ruiz, from Visalia, Calif., and more recently the Veterans Home in Yountville, died Nov. 23 at a hospital in Napa, Calif., from congestive heart failure.
Lieutenant Colonel John Andonie, from Clifton Park, N.Y., and his senior enlisted Soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge Vasquez from Jackson Heights, N.Y., will travel to California to meet with the Ruiz family and present honors at the gravesite of Alejandro Ruiz.
"We've been trying to keep in touch with Ruiz for many years," Andonie explained. "But due to the distance involved, we just couldn't keep in touch for our veterans' reunions. As soon as we saw the news of his death, I made a commitment to come pay our final respects."
The two Citizen Soldiers will present a wreath on behalf of the 69th Infantry Regiment's Veterans' Association at Ruiz' final resting place Jan. 25. The ceremony will be held in conjunction with the Yountville Veterans Home in Napa Valley where Ruiz spent his final years.
Ruiz received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration for gallantry, during World War II while serving in the Pacific with the 165th Infantry Regiment, the wartime designation of the 69th Infantry.
The "Fighting 69th" has a long tradition as a military formation of New York City immigrants, reflecting the many nationalities, cultures and ethnicities of recent arrivals to America. Famous for their Irish roots when first formed in 1851, the regiment continues to lead the New York City Saint Patrick's Day parade.
The unit continues to reflect the immigrant face of young Americans in New York City who want to serve in uniform, changing over the years from its Irish roots to Hispanic, Eastern European, Asian, Caribbean and a variety of immigrant cultures.
"I bring every new Soldier of the battalion in to my office so they understand the history of the 69th," Vasquez said. "This unit has been part of every major conflict from the Civil War to today, and our Soldiers have sacrificed in every one of those conflicts."
Alejandro Ruiz was born and raised in New Mexico, the son of a Mexican immigrant. His father had served as an officer in Pancho Villa's army, a military force that the 69th Infantry chased across the Mexican border in 1916 in the years before America's entry in World War I.
Ruiz found himself in trouble in 1944. He would often recount the tale that while working for a cattle farmer in Carlsbad, N.M., he let thoughts of a girlfriend take him astray during a drive to deliver a cow to another local farm. He wound up in Barstow, Texas, some 122 miles away. Local police detained Ruiz and charged him with stealing the cow. A judge offered an Army enlistment instead of jail, and Ruiz's 20 year Army career began.
Joining up with the 165th Infantry, Ruiz found himself with Soldiers who had served on active duty since before Pearl Harbor when the entire 27th Infantry Division from the New York National Guard mobilized under presidential order from Franklin Roosevelt.
By 1945, the division and the 165th Infantry had a long stream of combat achievements.
The division captured the coral atoll of Makin in late 1943 and the Majuro atoll and Eniwetok Island in early 1944. The division landed in Saipan in June of 1944, fighting as a whole division with all its regiments.
The 165th Infantry landed on Okinawa on April 9, 1945. The regiment was responsible for the reduction of the area known as Item Pocket, which was a system of Japanese defenses that were constructed to prevent the capture of Okinawa's principle airfield, at Machinato.
On April 28, 1945, Pfc. Ruiz was part of the regimental mission to seek remnants of a Japanese battalion hiding in fortified emplacements on steep ridges near the village of Gasukuma.
The Soldiers were ambushed in a ravine from a network of camouflaged pillboxes. Under heavy machine gun fire, every Soldier except Pfc. Ruiz and his squad leader was killed or wounded.
Ruiz picked up a Browning Automatic Rifle and assaulted the Japanese position in an attempt to save his squad. Reaching the top of the enemy bunker, he realized too late that his Browning was jammed by a ruptured cartridge, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
An enemy soldier charged him only Ruiz clubbed him with his useless Browning. Returning to his squad's position, he grabbed an additional BAR and ammunition and again returned to the bunker under concentrated enemy fire. Even after wounds to his leg, Ruiz arrived at the enemy bunker, fired into the bunker opening and killed all twelve of the enemy soldiers inside.
Ruiz received the Medal of Honor for his actions from President Harry Truman on June 12, 1946 with his comrades, his wife, mother and sister all present at the White House. A photo of the me,dal ceremony remains on display at the 69th Infantry armory in New York City as part of the unit historical collection.
"That photo is right on the wall just before Soldiers get to my office," Vasquez said. "Troops can see that image of Ruiz getting his Medal of Honor from President Truman."
He continued his Army career with combat service in Korea in the 1950s and retired as a Master Sergeant in 1964.
The New York City armory at Lexington Avenue, home of the 69th Infantry for more than 100 years, displays the awards for five of the regiments' seven Medals of Honor.
"Here was a man who accomplished legendary things with the unit," Andonie said. "He'll be remembered forever as part of the regiment, permanently on display for our Soldiers, families and others."