A Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat sits in the restoration hangar of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va. The mail plane was sent out in search of the Japanese fleet after the Pearl Harbor attack. Its only armament: three old rifles, which the crew would have had to fire through the windows. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The tattered Pearl Harbor survivor looks every bit of 78, with weathered skin, rusty bones and the faded “U.S. Navy” emblem the old bird got before the war.

Gray from age and years in the service, the veteran of Dec. 7 sits with other World War II antiques, weary and in need of attention.

But with the 75th anniversary of the 1941 attack this week, and commemorations scheduled in Hawaii and around the country, this survivor, like most who were there that day, has a story.

The ungainly Navy airplane at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., is one of the few original U.S. aircraft in existence that flew against the Japanese armada that day.

Then painted silver and orange-yellow, with a bright green tail and red trim, it was an unlikely combatant.

Designed as a small airliner — a “baby clipper” — it was unarmed and part of a unit called Utility Squadron One, which hauled mail, sailors and Navy photographers around the Hawaiian islands.

It had window curtains and a restroom with porcelain fixtures. Its top speed was just over 100 mph.

With Pearl Harbor a scene of death and devastation that Sunday morning, Plane No. 1063 — its insignia a pelican carrying a mailbag — was ordered to seek out the enemy.

For armament, the 28-year-old pilot, Ensign Wesley Hoyt Ruth, and his five-man crew were issued three World War I-era rifles.

Their task: Report the location of the six Japanese aircraft carriers, two battleships, assorted escort ships and hundreds of enemy airplanes that had been involved in the attack.

“This is going to be a one-way trip,” Ruth later said he thought.

But it wasn’t.

Seventy-five years later, the Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian, with its boat hull for the water and big tires for the runway, sits in the Udvar-Hazy Center’s restoration hangar, a venerable witness to the event that helped create modern America.

The Pearl Harbor attack, which plunged the United States into World War II, killed an estimated 2,400 Americans, wounded about 1,100, and destroyed ships, planes and facilities.

“The fact that [Ruth] got out and got back is . . . absolutely amazing,” Smithsonian museum specialist Pat Robinson said last month.

The plane would not have survived an encounter with the Japanese fleet, which it did not find, Robinson said in an interview at the center.

It was lucky not to have been shot down by jumpy American antiaircraft gunners when it returned to Pearl Harbor, he said.

And it was a miracle that it was saved from the postwar scrapheap.

“Somewhere . . . someone looking at the log books realized the significance of the airplane, and where it had been,” and alerted the Smithsonian, which retrieved it from military storage, Robinson said.

“It’s a huge deal, to have this here,” he said. “It represents American involvement in the Second World War. It was there when it started.”

Indeed, the airplane has a presence, and the Smithsonian would one day like to restore it. But other historic planes are in line ahead of it.

The craft, constructed for the Navy in 1938 at the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Conn., is big, with the two huge propeller engines built into the wing above the fuselage, a hatch in the nose where a photographer could stand, and porthole-style windows.

Inside it, the curators found an old emergency water purification kit and the rusted keys to a lockbox in the radio compartment.

The squadron was based on Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, where the Navy’s doomed battleships were parked.

Ruth, the pilot, who later lived in the Washington area and taught at the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., was in his bachelor’s quarters on the island the morning of the attack.

A seasoned aviator, “he could fly anything,” his son, Thomas A. Ruth II, said recently.

A native of tiny De Smet, S.D., he was having breakfast when the Japanese planes came roaring in. He thought for a moment that it might be a drill, until he saw them dropping bombs.

“Then I knew for sure that we were in for trouble,” he said.

He would survive the war, but a younger brother, Thomas, who was also a Navy pilot, was shot down and killed in the South Pacific in 1943.

In videotaped accounts he gave over the years, Wes Ruth said he grabbed his coat that morning, jumped into his convertible and sped with the top down for the airstrip.

“I drove as fast as I could because . . . I was concerned about getting strafed,” he said.

As he neared the runway, the battleship USS Arizona had just blown up about a quarter-mile away. Pellets of gunpowder ejected from the blast began to fall from the sky.

“It was snowing powder pellets about as large as my finger,” Ruth said in a talk he gave in 2011. They fell into and around his car.

As the Japanese attack ended, the Americans wanted to locate the fleet from which the enemy planes had come. Ruth was ordered to go find it. “You take the first plane, the JRS,” he said a senior officer told him.

He got into the plane with co-pilot Emery C. “Pappy” Geise, 35, radioman Oscar W. Benenfiel Jr., plane captain Amos P. Gallupe and two other sailors, according to the Smithsonian.

Before they left, the senior officer presented them with three Springfield rifles for protection. “We would have to shoot through the windows,” Ruth said.

He thought the chances of surviving were zero.

The brightly colored plane took off and flew north, looking for the enemy.

Hours went by.

“Every second in the air was fraught with anxiety, apprehension, [and] anger,” a crewman on another search plane recalled, according to Pearl Harbor historian Craig Nelson. “If ever there was a suicide mission, this was one.”

Ruth said he flew just beneath the clouds, so he could enter the cloud cover if there was trouble.

He flew 250 miles to the north but saw nothing. He turned east for 10 miles, then headed back south 250 miles toward Pearl Harbor. Still nothing.

Although the enemy fleet was still lurking north of Pearl Harbor, Ruth and his crew made no contact.

But then they had to get back to Ford Island without getting shot down by their comrades. Numerous American planes were mistaken for the enemy and shot at by nervous Americans on the ground, according to historians.

Again, Ruth and his men were lucky. They arrived unscathed.

Following the attack, the plane was moved to a base in California and later handed over to the forerunner of NASA for testing purposes, Robinson said. After that it went into storage until its importance was noticed and it was given to the Smithsonian.

Ruth died last year at 101 in Matthews, N.C. He was buried in January at Arlington National Cemetery.

For his actions at Pearl Harbor, he was given the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest decoration for heroism.

“Although contact with the enemy meant almost certain destruction,” his citation reads, Ruth’s courage, airmanship and skill “were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”