Local Air Force veteran remembers 80-year anniversary of his plane getting shot down in WWII

PLAQUEMINE, La. — March 4, 1944 is a date that 99-year-old Nolan “Country” Ruiz commemorates with his family yearly.

The memory goes back to World War II for the Air Force veteran. Monday is the 80th anniversary of his plane’s failed raid attempt during the first daylight raid over Berlin.

Ruiz joined the Air Force at 18-years-old and was flying as a gunner on B17 on March 4, 1944, when the plane was shot down.

“That was my 21st raid. I had 20 raids under my belt before that,” Ruiz recalled. “I was just praying that I would make it, but I didn’t.”

Berlin was the Air Force’s primary target because of its industrial importance and because many believed the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) would react to defend the capital and suffer heavy losses.

Ruiz said there were 10 people on the plane when it was shot down. They all survived and were captured and became German prisoners of war for 13 months until April 1945.

Ruiz spent his 20th and 21st birthdays as a German POW. Ruiz is the last living soldier from the plane.

“Every day you sweat,” Ruiz recalled about his time as a POW. “You don’t know what they’re going to do to you, and you worry every day.”

Ruiz has three daughters, and Delores Sutton said her father shared his stories with her and her sisters.

“I remember it as a child. We always knew the story that he was a prisoner of war and that his plane had been shot down, but he really didn’t talk about it too much when we were children,” she recalled. “It was after we were older that he began to tell the stories about everything.”

“He was also on a March. The Germans were marching the prisoners away from the prison camp because they wanted to surrender to the Americans, not to the Russians,” she continued. They marched for three months in one of the coldest winters ever.”

“The March” was a series of forced marches between September 1944 and May 1945 where hundreds of thousands of American and Allied prisoners were forced to march in severe weather without adequate essentials to live, according to U.S. military tribunal documents. The march killed thousands of prisoners.

“The march was terrible,” Ruiz stated. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We slept in barns, and we ate all kinds of stuff. The food was terrible. It was a terrible march. It was a death march, really.”

Ruiz earned the nickname “Country,” short for Country Boy, when he moved to Plaquemine from Brusly McCall, Louisiana, when he was 12. The village is located in Ascension Parish between White Castle and Donaldsonville. Sutton and Ruiz said most people don’t know his first name. He said his high school diploma even called him by his nickname.

“On my high school diploma, the principal made it out to Country Ruiz,” the veteran recalled. “I said, don’t you need my real name on it? I said my name is Nolan. He tore it up right in front of me and made me another one.”

Ruiz was in the Air Force for three years, exiting shortly after WWII. He returned to Plaquemine, where he opened Country’s Cafe in 1946 and operated it until he closed it and retired in 1988.

He said there was an adjustment period when he returned home after the war. He said he was just thankful.

“You thank God so much,” he said. “When you live through what we lived through, you have to thank God.”

Ruiz said he’s also thankful for his health despite the dangers he faced earlier in his life.

“I hate war,” he said. “It’s foolish to have a war. On that day in March 1944, I did not think I would live to see my 20th birthday,” Ruiz said. “If God will have it, I will celebrate my 100th birthday on May 8, 2024. I have to thank God for that.”

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