WAGNER — On Friday, a Charles Mix County bridge was named — appropriately — for a Bridge.
At a Veterans Day program, in Wagner the State of South Dakota officially ded-icated the Highway 46 bridge east of Wagner for the late S2 Wayne A. Bridge, a hometown World War II hero.
“‘A bridge for a Bridge,’ that’s what I put on the application,” nephew Jim Bridge said with a smile during Friday’s ceremony at the Wagner High School auditorium.
In 2019, Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, Military and Transportation launched the Fallen Heroes Bridge Dedication Program. State bridges are dedicated to South Dakotans who were killed in action while serving their country or classified as missing in action.
Wayne Bridge served on the USS Indianapolis, a Portland-class cruiser of the U.S. Navy. The cruiser played a top-secret role carrying supplies leading to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the end of World War II.
The fate of the ship has become legendary.
Wayne died at age 18 when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sank just days before the end of the war. Friday’s program listed a message from Noem. She wasn’t in attendance, but the state was represented by Secretary Greg Whitlock of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs and LTC Ed Lapthorn with the Department of the Military.
Whitlock served as Friday’s master of ceremonies and explained the importance of the bridge dedication program.
“In four years, we have dedicated 29 bridges to 32 service members who have sacrificed so much,” he said. “These South Dakotans went to war, and in a short time, met their destiny in far-off places and far-off battlefields.”
“There is nothing more complex, more important that we can do than ensure their sacrifice is remembered and their legacy lives on,” he added.
Lapthorn recognized the importance of Wayne Bridge’s desire to serve his country and the pride he likely felt upon serving with the USS Indianapolis. In the end, he made the ultimate sacrifice.
A Yankton sailor, Gordon Hoopes, was one of 15 South Dakotans serving on the USS Indianapolis. He credited Bridge with saving his life by preventing him from going below deck at the time of the Japanese torpedo attacks on the ship, Lapthorn said.
“Unfortunately, Seaman Second Class Bridge was badly burned and would die two days later in the water with his comrades,” Lapthorn added.
At the time, the military estimated around one million Allied personnel would perish if an invasion of Japan was necessary, Lapthorn said. Bridge’s heroism ultimately led to saving countless lives and avoiding horrific conflict by shortening the war, he added.
Jim Bridge said his uncle required his parents’ signature to enter the military because he was only 17. His father agreed and signed the enlistment papers.
“Today is a dedication in honor of my uncle, Wayne Aaron Bridge. He touched his entire family during his short lifetime as well as long after his life,” Jim Bridge said. “We are all so lucky everyday – sometimes taking for granted the many little things we have in our lives.”
State officials and the Bridge family unveiled the green sign with white lettering honoring Wayne Bridge. The sign will mark the span crossing Choteau Creek.
Friday’s program paid tribute to the late Wagner veteran in both word and song, including several Wagner school musical groups.
Jim Bridge sang the Jaime Johnson song, “In Color,” in tribute to entire Bridge family. He then shared his late uncle’s decision to serve his nation.
Unknown to them, Wayne Bridge and his shipmates played a crucial role in ending World War II early, Jim said during Friday’s program.
“The Indy crew had no idea what they were transporting,” Jim said. “They did not know that their secret cargo would save many more lives than it would take and bring a swift end to World War II.”
At Friday’s program, Jim referred to the memorabilia on an adjacent table, sharing the story of his uncle’s role on the secret mission.
Launched in 1931, the USS Indianapolis was the flagship for the commander of Scouting Force 1 for eight years. The cruiser then served as flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance in 1943 and 1944 while he commanded the Fifth Fleet in battles across the Central Pacific during World War II.
In July 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed a top-secret, high-speed trip to deliver uranium and other components for “Little Boy,” the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat, to the Tinian Naval Base. The cruiser subsequently departed for the Philippines on training duty.
At 12:15 a.m. July 30, the ship was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Submarine I-58 and sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,195 crewmen aboard approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining 890 faced exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks while stranded in the open ocean with few lifeboats and almost no food and water.
The incident was popularized in a scene from the 1975 movie “Jaws.”
The Navy only learned of the sinking four days later, when survivors were spotted by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. A U.S. Navy PBY seaplane crew landed to save those in the water. Only 316 survived.
During Friday’s program, Jim shared the story of his late uncle’s early life.
Wayne was born June 14, 1927 — Flag Day — to James and Phyllis Bridge on the family farm near Wagner. He was part of a large family of seven boys and four girls. The Bridge family lived on the family farm with no electricity or running water.
“Wayne was a very quiet person, always willing to help anyone at any time, and loved to be outside and work on the farm,” wrote his brother Ray, closest in age to Wayne.
Wayne attended country school and later high school until the ninth grade.
Ray recalled his brother as good at fixing things. “(I) only saw Wayne get mad once … He was the sane one,” Ray said.
Wayne’s sister, Berniece, held a special perspective of her younger brother.
“Wayne didn’t really have too much of life for us to remember — 17 years is all,” she said. “(He was) more like one of my children to me, so much younger.”
Wayne lived and worked with Berniece’s family on their farm for a time before enlisting.
Ray recalled Wayne telling their father he wanted to enlist. Wayne told the elder Bridge, who they called Papa, “It doesn’t matter where or what you’re doing, if it’s your time to go, it’ll happen.”
James Bridge agreed to sign the enlistment papers.
“The world is a lesser place without Wayne Bridge, but I know heaven is improved by his presence there,” Lapthorn said.