What do the discovery of the sunken remains of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis and the famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi have in common? The otherwise unremarkable LST-779.
On 19 August 2017, news broke that entrepreneur-philanthropist Paul Allen’s search team in the research vessel Petrel had located the final resting place of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis (CA-35), torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 just after midnight on 30 July 1945. Almost 900 of the heavy cruiser’s officers and men went down with their ship or died during a horrific 70-hour wait for rescue.
One of the key pieces of evidence used to locate the Indianapolis’ wreckage was the identification of a U.S. Navy vessel believed to have been the last encountered by the cruiser before her sinking—LST-779. And that discovery would lead to the resolution of another mystery from the last year of the Pacific war. This concerned the flag used in the second flag raising on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, the event documented by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and Marine Staff Sergeant William H. Genaust on 23 February 1945.
In December 2015, Richard Hulver, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), used Internet and National Archives resources to identify LST-779 as the last U.S. vessel to encounter the Indianapolis. The landing ship’s position indicated that the cruiser was west of her traditionally believed routing track. Based on that information, Hulver would work with NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, the Naval Historical Foundation, and others to determine a new search box for the lost ship, which would contribute to the Indianapolis’ discovery.
To learn more about LST-779, Hulver had turned to the NHHC’s Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS), but it did not include an entry for the vessel. In short, she had fallen through a historical crack. Because I was a member of the DANFS writing team and had assisted Hulver with his primary research at the National Archives, I drew the assignment to draft LST-779’s official history for the ship dictionary. An initial narrative emerged from her extant history in the archives at NHHC and standard secondary sources.
Ships That Came Ashore
Although slow and ungainly, the LST—landing ship, tank—was a key to Allied success in large amphibious operations during World War II. The ship could beach herself, open her large double bow doors, lower a ramp, and discharge from her spacious tank deck a large volume of cargo—vehicles, artillery, matériel—directly ashore. LVTs (landing vehicles, tracked) and DUKWs (amphibious trucks) could be discharged offshore to make their own way to the beach. The Normandy invasion would have been impossible without a fleet of more than 300 LSTs landing the supplies that sustained U.S., British, and Canadian forces ashore.
The large number of LSTs built and used by the Allies during the war and the varied nature of their service make them challenging to chronicle. The ship design had been conceived in the United Kingdom, and the vessel was called a tank landing craft (TLC). A delegation from the British Admiralty delivered the design to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships in November 1941. After some modifications, and with the concurrence of the British, the bureau approved it, and the type designator was changed to landing ship, tank (LST, Allied Type II).
The broad category of LST broke down into four different designs. The prototypes (British conversion), Type Is, and Type IIIs were built in English, Irish, or Canadian shipyards, while the Type IIs were built exclusively in U.S. shipyards. Of the 1,052 Type IIs produced during World War II, 117 were transferred to either the British Royal Navy or the Royal Hellenic Navy under terms of the Lend-Lease Act. Still other LSTs were assigned to and crewed by the U.S. Coast Guard.1
From Shipyard to the Pacific
LST-779 was laid down on 21 May 1944 at Pittsburgh by the Dravo Corporation. Launched on 1 July, she was commissioned at New Orleans on 3 August with Naval Reserve Lieutenant (junior grade) Joseph A. Hopkins in command. After a short period for final fitting out at the naval base at Algiers, Louisiana, LST-779 departed on 14 August for her two-week shakedown at St. Andrews Bay, Florida. The 328-foot flat-bottom ship had a 50-foot beam, and her armament consisted of 8 40-mm Bofors guns and 12 20-mm Oerlikons. She had a top speed of only 11.8 knots, but with a 500-ton load, her forward draft was only 3 feet, 11 inches.
Twenty-two days after setting out on her shakedown cruise, the ship returned to New Orleans, via Gulfport, Mississippi, and Algiers, where her tank deck was loaded with heavy construction materials earmarked for forward areas; five sections of a disassembled landing craft, tank (LCT) were secured on her main deck; and final checkups were made.
On 7 September, LST-779 departed for the Pacific Fleet. After transiting the Panama Canal, she steamed to San Diego, visiting Acapulco en route. On 8 October, the ship departed San Diego unescorted and arrived at Pearl Harbor ten days later. Her cargo was unloaded, and the vessel underwent a period of intensive training with Army and Marine Corps units in Hawaiian waters. It was not until January 1945 that LST-779 embarked her combat load of ammunition, gasoline, equipment, Marines of the 2d 155-mm Howitzer Battalion, their guns, and eight DUKWs from the Army’s 473rd Amphibian Truck Company. On 22 January, she departed Hawaii for the Marianas, where she participated in a landing rehearsal off Tinian and stopped off at Saipan, and then set course for Iwo Jima.
Along a Crowded Shoreline
At this point while compiling LST-779’s history, I used information from the ship’s existing war diaries, located at the National Archives, to broaden the narrative of her operations.2 In doing so, I was able to document the ship’s operations during the landings at Iwo Jima.
Operating as part of LST Tractor Group Charlie, Task Unit 53.3.8, LST-779 arrived off Iwo Jima at dawn on 19 February (D-day). She moved to the task unit’s position in Area Charlie, 8,500 yards from the beach. During that day and part of the next, she lay off the coast while the initial assault waves went ashore in smaller craft. Around 1400 on 20 February, the LST moved closer to the beach and launched her eight DUKWs. In response to a call by forces ashore for heavy artillery, she beached on Red Beach 1 at 1634 and began being unloaded. As a demonstration of her flexibility as an amphibious ship, she answered calls for fire support and engaged enemy targets on Mount Suribachi with her 40-mm battery.
Early on 21 February, the Marines off-loaded all the heavy artillery from the ship. During this time, she was straddled by heavy enemy fire and a Japanese mortar round hit a nearby LVT. Fragments from the explosion pierced the LST’s hull. Soon afterward, she withdrew from the beach. The ship remained nearby, and her hull was again punctured when, in the process of launching pontoon barges, a swell caused a collision. On 22 February, she shifted to an anchorage 800 yards off Green Beach.
The next day, LST-779 received orders to beach on the left flank of Green Beach 1 and unload the remainder of her combat cargo. Throughout the day, a beach party continued unloading the 2d Howitzer Battalion’s remaining ammunition. Consulting the Marine Corps History Division’s thorough narrative of that day’s events, I found that units from the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, had taken the summit of Mount Suribachi and erected a U.S. flag tied to a section of pipe found nearby.
According to the Marine study, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler W. Johnson, the battalion commander, had deemed the flag too small to be visible to many of the men fighting on the island. He told Second Lieutenant Albert T. Tuttle to go down to one of the ships and procure a battle flag “large enough that the men at the other end of the island will see it. It will lift their spirits also.” Tuttle hastened aboard LST-779, beached near the base of Suribachi, and was given a larger set of colors.3 Also, in James Bradley’s bestselling Flags of Our Fathers, the flag is from LST-779.4
The Coast Guard Claim
However, a contrary account of the source of the flag arose after the publication of Bradley’s book. A former Coast Guardsman, Robert L. Resnick, who was at Iwo Jima serving on board Coast Guard–manned LST-758, asserted that he personally gave the flag for the second flag raising to Private First Class Rene Gagnon, one of the five Marines depicted in the famous photograph.5 Having worked in the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office for 18 years before becoming a historian at NHHC, I was very familiar with Resnick’s claim.
He stated in an interview, “Just after 11:15 a.m., a helmeted young Marine with dark sideburns [Private Gagnon] came aboard LST-758.” Resnick said he received a call from the bow and was told a Marine wished to get a flag to raise on the summit of the volcano. The Coast Guardsman stated that he “scampered down the ladder to the signal bridge and then back down to the bridge, where he handed the Marine the flag.”6
Resnick’s claim to have provided the flag for the second flag raising, which was recognized by the Coast Guard, caused considerable consternation among Marine veterans. It even prompted a request from the Marine Corps History Division to the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office to disavow Resnick’s assertions and remove material related to his claims from the office’s website.
Further complicating the issue was a newspaper interview with Marion Noel, a former LST-779 crewman, published on 23 February 2015—the 60th anniversary of the flag raising. Noel said, “The ship’s log says that our commanding officer, Alan Wood, furnished the flag.” Further, he stated that he and Donnie Noel, his Navy-veteran son, had “obtained the ship’s log from LST-779, which contained an entry from Feb. 23, 1945, stating that the ship supplied the flag for the raising.”7
Resolution and ‘Indy’ Encounter
Having used LST-779’s war diaries to write the history of the ship, I had not consulted the ship’s logs, housed at the National Archives, for information regarding her operations on 23 February. But I did so on 25 August 2017—six days after the Indianapolis discovery announcement—and positively confirmed the origins of the second flag raised on Mount Suribachi.
The entry for 23 February stated that at “1100 Supplied flag to Marines to fly from Mt. Suribachi.”8 Though Marion Noel incorrectly remembered the name of the commanding officer—Ensign Alan S. Wood, who signed the log entry, was the ship’s communications officer—the LST-779 veteran was otherwise correct.
The LST continued to operate in support of the Iwo Jima landings until 28 February. With mattresses plugging the holes in her hull, she retracted from the beach at 1533 and proceeded to a convoy rendezvous for departure from the waters around the island. At 1715, she joined the convoy proceeding to Saipan for repairs.
LST-779 later supported the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. During the next few months, she went from beachhead landings to logistical support, supplying U.S. advance bases in the western Pacific. While fulfilling this mission, she was on Convoy Route Peddie between Guam and the Philippines and encountered the Indianapolis, thus becoming the last U.S. Navy ship to see the cruiser afloat. Her subsequent track while en route to Samar, slightly north of the Peddie route, unfortunately placed her well out of visual range of sighting any Indianapolis survivors in the water.
With the war’s end, LST-779 continued her logistical support mission conveying supplies and moving occupation troops throughout the islands of the western Pacific. With two battle stars for her service in World War II, the ship was decommissioned on 18 May 1946 and stricken from the Navy list on 19 July. She was sold to Bosey in the Philippines on 5 December 1947.
Although a seemingly nondescript constituent of a class of important but unspectacular warships, LST-779 assumed a rather unique place in the history of the Pacific war. Purely by happenstance, this amphibious vessel, whose active service only lasted about 22 months, prominently figured in two of the most recalled events of the war’s waning months: the iconic flag raising on Mount Suribachi and the sinking of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis. Curiously, in less than a week in August 2017, the results of historians triangulating the relationships between these events provided the answers to questions that have existed for 72 years.
2. War diaries are narratives of a ship’s operations that are based on her logbooks. In the case of LST-779, there were a number of months in 1945 that were missing from the files housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA II).
3. Bernard C. Nalty and Danny J. Crawford, The United States Marines on Iwo Jima: The Battle and the Flag Raisings (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1995), 5–12.
4. James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), 209. Bradley cited Richard Wheeler, Iwo (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994) in making this assertion.
5. Interview with Robert L. Resnick conducted by PA2 Judy Silverstein, USCGR, in The Reservist Magazine, vol. 51, no. 6, 2004. www.uscg.mil/history/weboralhistory/Resnick_Iwo_Jima.asp.
7. Interview in the Roanoke Times, 23 February 2015, www.roanoke.com/news/local/botetourt_county/eagle-rock-navy-veteran-remembers-iwo-jima-flag-raising-battle/article_d1dcc442-c357-54c2-be82-985caa835876.html.
8. LST-779 Deck Log, 23 February 1945, RG 24, Entry 118, NARA II.