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 Sikorski 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 scrap heap.

"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."

The craft, built 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.

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 2nd, 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.

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 in 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 copilot 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 old 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.

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

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