By Lawrence Namminga
Preamble by Dick Martin
Like September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941 South Dakotans have an extra day, June 10, 1972, that they will not forget and probably remember what they were doing that day. On that day, disaster struck as Canyon Lake Dam in the Black Hills failed after 15 inches of rain fell in six hours causing Rapid Creek to overflow and flood much of Rapid City causing 238 deaths, 3,057 injuries, and 160 million in property damage. Rapid city needed help and the rest of South Dakota answered the call. Springfield did its part when many of its citizens, as part of Company D of the 153rd National Guard Engineer Battalion, joined the effort in contributing to the recovery operations in Rapid City.
To quote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “A date that will live in infamy.” That quote could be used by South Dakotans as it is applied to the June 9, 1972 flood in Rapid City, South Dakota when 238 people lost their lives in the “Rapid City Flood”. For me, the emergency started after a day of working in the hay fields outside of Cody, NE, and my wife Cheri and I loading up the car and heading to Springfield for a night’s rest in preparation for the June guard drill of Company D, 153rd Engineer Battalion in Springfield the next morning. When leaving Cody, I remember commenting to Cheri that the Thunder Heads really were quite large to the west, even though we were 140 miles SE of the Black Hills.
We got to bed by 11:30 in my parents’ home and at 1:30 my dad woke me up and told me that I needed to report to the armory immediately. Little did I know that my two hours of sleep would be all that I would receive for the time covering the 48 hours prior and after my call up. Upon arriving, I heard that our unit and all of the National Guard units in the state, had been activated because of a flood in the Rapid City area. We had no idea of just how serious it really was. As guard members started to arrive, trucks were loaded with all of our equipment in preparation for the trip to the Hills. The unit proved to itself just how important readiness was in that it enabled us load all of the unit’s equipment that was stored in the armory in a very short amount of time. Most of the rest of Company D personnel had arrived by 5:00 a.m. and we were loaded and moved out of Springfield shortly after sunrise on our trip to Rapid City.
The trip out was uneventful and those of us that had transistor radios with us tried to listen to news reports that gave us a clue as to what we were facing. (We sometimes forget just how advanced communication and instant news reports are today as compared to 40 years ago; we really were in the dark!) Disbelief is the best word to describe what we were hearing on damage done and the lives lost and/or missing in those brief snippets of news coverage. When we got past the Ellsworth Air Force Base exit on Interstate 90, we began to see just how violent the flood must have been. Several sections of the interstate had been washed away and destroyed and water was still moving rapidly in the affected creeks, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw when we entered Rapid City.
Before I begin the narrative of the 153rd’s time in Rapid City starting with the day after the flood, I need to emphasize the volume of traffic that was coming into the city by the National Guard convoys and other relief vehicles. The 153rd Engineer Battalion, of which the Springfield Unit was a part, was composed of five companies, A, B, C, D and Headquarters Company. Each of the companies probably had 20+ vehicles of various National Guard system in place that is responsible to the governor for disasters that can arise.
There are so many interesting and tragic stories that I did not personally witness, but have heard from National Guard personnel that were present during the flood that tell of heroism, persistence, and tragedy. A friend, who happened to be in Rapid City at the time, witnessed the water rising around his car in the intersection while he waited for the light to change. He got through the intersection and was able to get to high ground, but he watched the car right behind him get washed away in Rapid Creek. He was listed as missing for two or three days until he finally got word that he was on the missing person’s list and got the error corrected.
The entire experience in Rapid City will never be forgotten and I am very proud that our National Guard unit was able to be a part of the recovery operations.