LISTEN to Seth Irving on Hometown Heroes
92-year-old Seth Irving of Rio Rancho, NM appears on episode #363 of Hometown Heroes, debuting April 18, 2015. Born and raised on the Oglala Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, SD, Irving served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Seth had three brothers and five sisters, but after his father died in 1929, he moved to the Holy Rosary Mission School (Now Red Cloud Indian School), working through the summer to cover his room and board.
His grandfather was “Bronco Bill” Irving of Wild Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, a horseman and Lakota translator who had married a young Oglala Lakota bride named Ella. For his last two years of high school, Seth went to Oglala Community High School, earning All-State honors in basketball. He played basketball and football at what is now Black Hills State University in Spearfish, SD before joining the Navy in 1942. Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out how complicated it was for him to even enlist in the Navy. He had lost his mother six months earlier, so with no parents to sign for him, he lied about his age so he could join the military sooner. “The Rez” in Pine Ridge, as you’ll hear Seth call it, paid a disproportionately heavy price in World War II. 23 men from the reservation were killed in the war, and Seth came incredibly close to becoming number 24.
His first ship was the destroyer USS Endicott (DD-495), and you’ll hear him remember crossing the Atlantic on submarine patrol, escorting a convoy to North Africa and back. It was aboard another destroyer, the USS Newcomb (DD-586) that he would see his most intense action, and both Seth and his ship would end up with pretty incredible stories of survival. Assigned to a 40mm anti-aircraft gun crew, Seth experienced plenty of action as the Newcomb helped sink the Japanese battleship Yamashiro at the Battle of Surigao Strait. Later, off the coast of Iwo Jima, he would witness American marines being gunned down by the Japanese. Later he would learn that his first cousin from Pine Ridge, USMC PFC Clement Crazy Thunder, was one of the more than 6,800 Americans killed in the battle for Iwo Jima. Irving insists he had never felt scared in his Navy service until April 6, 1945.
Listen to the program to hear how Seth remembers that fateful evening, and how the Newcomb received word that a swarm of 500 kamikazes had taken off from mainland Japan, headed for Okinawa. American fighter planes intercepted most of them, but more than 200 made it through to attack American ships, and by the end of the night, the destroyer Newcomb would be struck by no fewer than five suicide planes. Incredibly, the Newcomb managed to avoid sinking, but Seth Irving’s story is just as amazing. As the first kamikaze approached from the opposite side of the ship, Seth heard his rangefinder say, “Hit the deck, Seth! There’s a plane coming.” Just as he unbuckled from his gun mount, the Japanese plane hit nearby, blowing the sailor into the water. He had been wearing a helmet, boots, and full uniform, but when he came to underwater, Irving had been stripped bare by the explosion, burns covering his body from head to knee.
You’ll hear him remember what he experienced for the next six hours until he was rescued, six hours he says felt like “a lifetime.” You’ll also find out how long it took him to recover, why he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to see again, and what he experienced on a jubilant Market Street in San Francisco on V-J Day. Here’s a hint: there might be some kissing involved. You’ll hear him explain how the timing worked out perfectly for him to meet and marry a young nurse named Elfrieda, connecting while they were both back home on the Pine Ridge reservation on leave. They’re still married after 68 years, enjoying retirement in New Mexico after Seth’s long career as an administrator at Haskell Indian Junior College in Kansas. You’ll hear from Elfrieda as well, and I’m sure you’ll pick up on how thankful the Irvings, their children, and grandchildren are that a young sailor survived against all odds on April 6, 1945.