Alejandro R. Ruiz Sr. dies at 85; WWII vet received the Medal of Honor

Alejandro R. Ruiz Sr., an Army infantryman during World War II who received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly storming a Japanese machine gun bunker -- twice -- during the Battle of Okinawa, died of congestive heart failure Nov. 23 at a hospital in Napa, Calif. He was 85.

On April 28, 1945, in the last months of the war, the private first class deployed to Okinawa on a mission with his platoon, seeking remnants of a Japanese battalion hiding in fortified emplacements on steep ridges near the village of Gasukuma.

The soldiers were patrolling in a ravine when they were ambushed from a network of concealed pillboxes. Coming under heavy fire, every soldier except Ruiz and his squad leader was killed or injured.

Realizing that his standard-issue M1 Garand -- with an eight-round clip -- would be insufficient against the more powerful Japanese machine guns, Ruiz picked up a Browning automatic rifle and began his solo assault.

He calmly walked 35 yards to the bunker. He climbed on top and was prepared to fire into it, but a ruptured cartridge jammed the Browning, according to the Medal of Honor citation.

A Japanese soldier charged him, and Ruiz beat him down with the broken gun. Ruiz tossed the rifle aside and ran back through the grenade explosions and gunfire to where his platoon was pinned down. He retrieved a second weapon, tested it and grabbed some extra cans of ammo before he dashed back.

All of the Japanese guns were trained on Ruiz as he raced back through a hail of gunfire. He was hit in the leg but managed to climb back on top of the pillboxes. He jumped from one bunker to the other, spraying bursts of gunfire into the apertures.

Ruiz’s Medal of Honor citation says that “in the face of overwhelming odds,” he single-handedly killed 12 Japanese soldiers and silenced the machine gun nest, saving his fellow soldiers.

President Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, during a ceremony at the White House in June 1946. Ruiz also received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Alejandro Renteria Ruiz was born April 26, 1924, in Loving, N.M., to Mexican immigrants.

He spent his career in the Army. He also served in the Korean War and retired as a master sergeant in the mid-1960s.

He lived for many years in Visalia, Calif., which named a park in his honor. Most recently, he had been living at the Veterans Home in Yountville, Calif., near Napa.

His marriages to Eliza Martinez and Lilia Flores ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Celia Ruiz and Alejandro Ruiz Jr., both of Berkeley; a sister; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Ruiz often recounted the circumstances that led to his Army service. As a teenager working in odd jobs for a cattle farmer in Carlsbad, N.M., he had been asked to drive a cow to another farm when he became distracted by thoughts of a girlfriend.

He drove, with the cow in tow, straight to Barstow, Texas, 122 miles away, to woo the young woman into marrying him. Ruiz was detained, and a judge told him that he would either be sent to jail for stealing the cow, or he could enlist in the Army to stay out of trouble. He chose the Army.

Shapiro writes for the Washington Post.