Carlsbad celebrates ribbon-cutting for senior center named after war hero

Carlsbad’s new senior center a tribute to miraculous war hero

Before heading off to Okinawa to become a war hero, Alejandro Ruiz, who was raised in both Loving and Carlsbad, was a man in love.

One day, while transporting cows at a farm in Carlsbad, Ruiz could not get a woman he loved named Eliza Martinez off his mind. Especially after he learned that another man had planned to ask for her hand in marriage. Unable to wait any longer, Ruiz abandoned the cows and took off to Barstow, Texas, with the aim of professing his love to Eliza.

When the cows didn’t make their destination, Ruiz was reported to the police, recounted Ruiz’s daughter, Celia Ruiz, at a grand opening celebration for the Alejandro Ruiz Senior Center in Carlsbad on Friday, Aug. 26.

A judge gave him the choice of going to jail or to the Army. Off to Okinawa he went to fight in WWII, where Ruiz’s death-defying actions achieved the level of heroism that one could only imagine in Hollywood films.

Upon returning home from the war, Ruiz remained focused on Eliza Martinez and again went off looking for her. By then, she had moved from Barstow.

During that time, unbeknownst to Ruiz, people in Washington D.C. were looking over eye-witness accounts in Okinawa, and it was determined that Ruiz should receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded to military servicemen.

A high-ranking member of the military was sent to track down Ruiz and tell him that he must report to Washington D.C. immediately; that President Harry S. Truman was prepared to honor him.

Ruiz was found at a Greyhound bus station and told, You’ve got to report to D.C., but Ruiz refused.

I’m getting married in three days, Ruiz said, you’re not going to do this to me again.

Long story short, “The president and the military had to wait a week until he got married,” quipped Celia.

It was one in a number of fascinating stories Celia recalled about her father during Friday’s ribbon cutting ceremony.

Photo credit: Joe Herrera, courtesy of the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging.

In addition to a war hero, Celia’s stories described a man of passion, love, dedication and persistence. Celia recounted some tragic years as Ruiz aged, as well as how a senior center in Berkeley, Calif., where Celia resides, became an important place for connection for her father.

“Dad really loved going to the senior center, meeting people his own age, interacting,” Celia said. “Ceramics was his newfound passion. And so when I was told that you were naming a center for my father, it took special significance for us.”

The Alejandro Ruiz Senior Center is located at 120 Kircher St.  The city moved senior operations from the former San Jose Senior Center to the Kircher St. facility, which will “allow us to continue to expand services for our seniors and improve our partnership with the [Southeast New Mexico Community Action Corporation],” Mayor Dale Janway said in a statement.

During the event, Mayor Janway expressed appreciation for a wide variety of project partners, including Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Rodriguez for suggesting that the senior center be renamed after Ruiz.  He also thanked the City Council for approving the dedication.

“The city is very proud to be able to recognize this United States hero and his incredible brave accomplishments,” Mayor Janway said.

Janway encouraged the public to visit Carlsbad Museum to see Ruiz’s exhibit.

“The story is almost unbelievable when you hear it,” he said.

Celia shared some of the details. In Okinawa on April 28, 1945, Ruiz’s platoon was trapped in combat, with everyone wounded except for Ruiz and another person. Surrounded by enemy fire coming from Japanese soldiers stashed in a pillbox, Ruiz, a rifleman, picked up a semi-automatic and decided to single-handedly charge the pillbox.

“If you read the eyewitness accounts, it will describe hundreds of bullets and hand grenades, enemy fire directed at this one GI who was zig zagging his way toward the pillbox.” 

“If you read the eyewitness accounts, it will describe hundreds of bullets and hand grenades, enemy fire directed at this one GI who was zig zagging his way toward the pillbox,” Celia said.

Miraculously, Ruiz wasn’t hit, but when he got to the pillbox and pulled out his semiautomatic, it jammed.

“So he had to use it as a club,” Celia said. “And when six Japanese soldiers came out, he retraced his steps back to where his platoon was at. Again, a second time, intense enemy fire, bullets, grenades, all around him. And for the second time he was not hit.”

He then searched for a second semi-automatic and made sure it worked. And then for a third time, he ran straight into incredible enemy fire, this time suffering a bullet wound to his leg. But he made it to the pillbox and took out the enemy opposition, Celia said.

“If you would have put this into a John Wayne movie, you’d say Hollywood was embellishing,” Celia said.

When told he was hero, Ruiz said the heroes were those who did not return from the war, she added. “He showed his true moral fiber during this intense period.”

The military became Ruiz’s career and he went on to serve in the Korean War. Shortly before his retirement, he was hit by a Greyhound bus in California, which landed him in the hospital for a year and on disability.

As Ruiz got older, he faced many of the challenges that seniors can face. According to Celia, her parents divorced and her father suffered spousal abuse in a subsequent relationship.

Celia, an attorney, used her legal skills to remove her father from the situation. He lived 10 years with Celia’s family in Berkeley, where he would share wonderful stories from his past and spend time with Celia’s children. One of her sons, Joaquin, liked to take Ruiz to the veterans hospital in San Francisco, said Celia.

“He would drive dad in his van… and park in the red zone and the military police officer would be running up saying ‘You cannot,'” Celia said. “Then he’d notice the license plate’s Congressional Medal of Honor, and he’d say, ‘Yes sir, park where you want to sir.'”

Her other son, Diego, a teenager at the time, liked being with a grandfather who could break the rules.

“And I told him, ‘Yes, the military will give your grandfather some slack, but there’s a reason for it,” Celia said. “He earned that privilege.”

In those days, Ruiz would head off to the North Berkeley senior center in the afternoons. The center was very much like the center that now carries his name in Carlsbad, said Celia.

Photo credit: Joe Herrera, courtesy of the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging.

She still has a collection of ceramics at her home that he made at the senior center.

Having a center named after him in the community where he was raised is special, she said, “because of the role the senior center played in enhancing my father’s life.” Celia advocated for intergenerational programs where seniors can share their stories with young people.

Ruiz died in 2009. The town of Visalia, where he resided in later years, honored him by naming a park after him. In 2017, he was inducted in the Carlsbad Hall of Fame.

Beyond the incredible stories shared at the museum, Carlsbad’s new senior center offers another prominent way to ensure Ruiz’s humble heroics are passed down through the generations.

“His act of bravery [in WWII] saved many lives that day, but what is every bit as important is the life he lived after WWII ended, and his contributions as a father, husband and citizen,” Janway said. “We honor Alejandro Ruiz not only for his moment of incredible bravery, but for his decades of being a good person.”

Special thanks to the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging for providing the photos from this event. Visit here to learn more about the agency.