After World War II ended, Sylvan Vigness worked as a signalman on the USS Hinsdale, a victory ship that transported troops home to the States.
The South Dakotan who traded the prairie for the Pacific had been struck by shrapnel in 1945 when he was 21 during a kamikaze attack near Okinawa and had been at Iwo Jima when the Marines captured the island and planted the U.S. flag. He was discharged from the Navy as a Signalman Second Class on May 6, 1946, with an injury that caused him to lose his vision in his left eye.
Saturday, Vigness’ war story was completed when the now 94-year-old veteran was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, given to armed forces members wounded in battle, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Flandreau’s community center. He listened while Lt. Commander Julian Carswell from the Navy Operational Support Center in Sioux Falls told a detailed story of the attack on the ship on April 1, 1945. He took in the congratulatory remarks from dignitaries, including Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who worked to get the award for Vigness, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
“He says he doesn’t really need this recognition to validate the importance of what he did,” said Rounds who serves on the Senate Armed Forces Committee. Vigness, a humble man, has our respect, honor and thanks for his service, Rounds said.
“Our country needs Sylvan…to thank you. That is why it is so important that you and your family are finally receiving your Purple Heart today,” he said.
Rounds described the heart-shaped gold and purple medal with the image of George Washington in the center and said, “Today, Sylvan, you are first in our hearts. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.”
The 73-year-delay in the awarding of his Purple Heart resulted from a record keeping issue. More than 20 years ago, Vigness’ son, Dan, started working on getting the overdue medal of honor, but it wasn’t until a private dinner at the Pentagon in December between Rounds and the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer that the award was approved.
“The president has made it very clear to all the branches that he wants these requests expedited,” Rounds said. Once Rounds met with Spencer and gave additional information that Vigness also had been at the battle of Iwo Jima, within 72 hours, the Senator’s office received the Purple Heart for Vigness.
Daugaard, who also congratulated Vigness, said it is important to thank veterans for helping keep America free, especially the group of World War II veterans who are aging, he said. “It’s becoming less and less often now that I have the chance to thank World War II veterans for their service.”
When the time came to receive his Purple Heart, Vigness was pushed to the podium in his wheelchair where his wife, Iona, Rounds and Vigness’ children and their spouses surrounded him. Rounds gave Iona Vigness the medal to attach to her husband’s gray sweater jacket.
“This is an awesome, awesome day,” she said after the award was made. “It’s just really very special.”
Ken Teunissen, with the Military Order of the Purple Heart in Sioux Falls, presented Vigness with a lifetime membership, a pin and two caps. Vigness stood in honor of the flag as the American Legion Kelley-Porter Post 70 Honor Guard retired the colors, just as he had done at the beginning of the ceremony while the Flandreau City Band played the “National Anthem.” In addition to the band playing patriot songs for the ceremony, Dan Sutton of Flandreau sang “The Navy Hymn – Eternal Father Strong to Save.”
At the beginning of the ceremony, Staff Sergeant Bart Sample with the S.D. National Guard and Kelley-Porter Post 70 commander, welcomed dignitaries and guests and spoke about Vigness’ patience in waiting for the Purple Heart.
“Thirty years after retiring from a 35-year career in education from Flandreau Public School, you sir, are still teaching us life lessons like dedication, perseverance and patience. May we all continue to learn from you,” Sample said.
Son of an immigrant
Vigness’ father, Daniel Vigness, had come to America from Norway and served in the Army in World War I. He died at a young age, leaving behind his wife and two children, Sylvan who was 5 and his younger sister, Alma.
Their mother remarried Elmer Swenson and moved the family to live with him in Egan, where Sylvan Vigness graduated high school in 1942. At a young age, Sylvan had helped area farmers, an experience that led him to decide to study agriculture and industrial arts when he returned from the war and attended South Dakota State University.
A career in education
After Vigness returned home from the war, he married his wife, Iona, and had three children, Dan, Carol and Dwight.
He spent his life’s work in education, first as an agriculture and industrial arts teacher in Rutland for three years before moving to Flandreau in 1953. He taught the same subject at Flandreau High School until 1962 when he became superintendent for the district. He retired in 1988.
Vigness said his favorite part of his career was working with students, “meeting all the students and getting acquainted with them.”
Attack on the USS Hinsdale
In the predawn on April 1, 1945 near Okinawa, Vigness was working as a signalman at the ship’s highest vantage point and spotted the incoming kamikaze plane on the ship’s port side. “There were only seconds to react,” Carswell said during the Purple Heart ceremony. The ship had 1,500 Marines on board and 500 crew members.
During the attack, Vigness went overboard, Carswell said, but not before shrapnel came up through the ship’s shaft and hit Vigness who was later rescued from the water. The Marines used their weight to counteract the flooding into the ship, playing a huge role in saving the ship, which had lost power during three explosions and was on fire, Carswell said.
In the process, 15 men died and 40 others were missing or wounded.
“Despite the devastating damage, the Hinsdale and her crew still managed to put the Marines ashore and they completed their mission,” he said.
Vigness was treated on a hospital ship and transferred to Brooklyn Naval Hospital. The Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, and in November of that year, Vigness was transferred back to the Hinsdale because of a shortage of signalmen. He continued to serve and took part in transporting troops back to the United States until his discharge, despite the injury to his eye. That duty at the end of the war was very rewarding, Vigness said.
Long awaited honor
Receiving the Purple Heart was a nice surprise, and he is proud of his service, Vigness said. “It’s great, and I’m very thankful for it. But I’ve had a long time without it,” he said in an interview.
Daughter-in-law Deb Vigness, whose husband Dan died of cancer five years ago on Jan. 28, said he would be pleased that his father finally got his medal. Dan Vigness had been on an Honor Flight with his father to Washington, D.C. and at the statue of Iwo Jima, his father told him he had been there.
“He (Sylvan) said, ‘I was there. I watched them raise the flag,’” Deb Vigness said.
That sparked the effort to get a Purple Heart for Sylvan Vigness.
“Dan would be so proud and so happy,” she said.