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December 06, 2017 10:00 PM

The Decades-Long Battle For A Purple Heart


During the 1945 battle at Iwo Jima, Sylvan Vigness was aboard the U.S.S. Hinsdale working as a signalman when his ship was hit by a kamikaze. 

“It was just on top of the water and I saw it and I said, we're going to get hit--we're going to get hit and the next thing I knew we were hit," Sylvan Vigness said.

“He jumped off the signal bridge and into the ocean," Iona Vigness said.

Vigness says tugboats kept the ship afloat and when he got back on board he went to see the ship's medic about his eye.

“I remember kind of a stinging sensation in my eye and I went to the hospital ship and they put some drops in, covered it up and said come back in three days," Sylvan Vigness said.

Vigness went back to work and even witnessed history in the making.

“We were down on Blue Beach and I saw the flag going up and I thought, this is the end of the war, I hope," Sylvan Vigness said.

But Vigness, who will be 94-years-old next month, lost his sight completely in his left eye from that injury. 

According to medical reports dated seven months after the attack on his ship, foreign items were removed from his eye and he was transferred to a U.S. Naval Hospital for treatment. 

The Naval hospital documents that the "cornea shows a bizarre shaped thread like opacity over the pupil." 

Vigness has dealt with his eye injury for 72 years.

Sylvan Vigness: “Oh every once and a while it smarts.”

Angela Kennecke: “It hurts? 

Sylvan Vigness: “Yeah, but usually it's okay. 

In 2000, his son Dan decided to try to get his father's records together and request he get a Purple Heart.  A Purple Heart is awarded when someone is wounded or killed while serving in the military.  Dan started his efforts by contacting Senator Tim Johnson's office.

But Senator Johnson received this letter in July of 2000 from a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy that said "A review of available personnel and medical records fail to document that Mr. Vigness was ever wounded or injured under the conditions for which the Purple Heart can be authorized." 

“Mainly that the records were not there--were not signed, sealed, and delivered that he had been injured," Iona Vigness said.

Dan appealed that decision and continued to work to try to get his father the Purple Heart until his death from cancer in 2013.  

Head of the American Legion in Flandreau and Vietnam veteran Curtis Eng picked up where Dan left off.  Eng has a special connection to Vigness who was his teacher and the long-time superintendent of Flandreau schools.

“I couldn't read. I could stumble through the words. But with Mr. Vigness' help I was able to graduate from high school," Eng said.

The Vigness family and Eng have submitted document after document, even letters from Vigness' shipmates testifying he lost his sight during the kamikaze attack. 

“His paperwork was lying on a naval commander's desk and all he had to do was sign it and Mr. Vigness would have gotten his Purple Heart, but it didn't go through. "

After working with several South Dakota congressional offices on the effort, Eng says he doesn't know where else to turn or how to convince the Navy.

“A medic on board, or the Navy calls them corpsmen, who might have put a dressing on his eye---but none of that would have been written down and the Navy says we have to have actual paperwork that says he was treated on the ship," Eng said.

Vigness has now watched his family and friends fight this battle on his behalf for nearly 20 years, taking it all in stride.  

“I think it's great that they do, but I've gotten along years without it, so I can continue without it," Sylvan Vigness said.

“The kids have worked so hard for it and Curt. Everybody thinks he should have it and yeah I would like to see him get it," Iona Vigness said.

“I can't imagine it takes this long. It just befuddles my Norwegian mind," Eng said.

“Oh it would be nice to have it for his birthday," Iona Vigness said.

On January 4, Vigness will turn 94. 

AK: You did a lot for this country.

Sylvan Vigness: “Well thanks.”

The Vignesses says Dan actually started the effort with Senator Daschle’s office and then moved on to Johnson's. The family has also tried to work through Senator Rounds' office.  We asked for an interview with Sen. Rounds, but instead were issued a statement saying that Rounds was working on the case.  

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