U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
USCG Veteran Provided Stars and Stripes for U.S. Marines
PA2 Judy L. Silverstein, USCGR
Seventh District Public Affairs
The following article was based on interviews with a Coast Guard World War II combat veteran, Robert L. Resnick, who served aboard a Coast Guard-manned LST during the invasion of Iwo Jima.
Please note that his claim regarding the origin of the flags raised on Mount Suribachi remain unsubstantiated and conflict with U.S. Marine Corps accounts.
BOCA RATON, Fla. — In the shadow of Mt. Suribachi, a young quartermaster patrols the deck of LST-758. The year is 1945. Naval guns thunder and the buzz of bullets punctuates the air as a bloody battle rages on Iwo Jima.
“Men were dying by the score. I watched it in utter sadness and terror for them,” said Robert L. Resnick, 82, a Coast Guard veteran and quartermaster on LST-758, beached off the island that historic day. “I thought what a horrible thing is happening. I was an eyewitness to the sad, horrible day. It was a slaughter, a horrible thing right on the beach.”
It was a day that has become the key symbol of the Marine Corps. Resnick was much more than a witness. Shortly after the tide turned in that bloody battle, he provided the stars and stripes and staff that enabled U.S. Marines to plant the American flag on the island, a moment captured on film and relived for generations to come.
Vivid Memories 60 Years Later
Six decades later, the Boca Raton resident vividly recalls the sights and sounds of his historic voyage to Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes, a Native American from Arizona, befriended him. Resnick mimics the rat-tat-tat of staccato gunfire, as he describes the odor of gunfire that fateful day.
“We were scared,” he said, his voice reaching a high pitch as he recounts the mayhem and fear. He recalls the close quarters on his 329-foot LST, a light surface transport ship. “But we didn’t mind, we were committed. Absolutely committed.”
“We were young and impassioned, what can I say?” said Resnick.
Resnick, who started an elastics for children’s wear business 63 years ago, joined the Coast Guard in 1944. A younger brother soon joined the Army.
“We both wanted to do our part,” he said.
A crisp black and white photo on his mantel depicts his innocence and youth circa 1940s (see photos below). Resnick sports a wide smile in his dark navy, mounted patrol shore uniform. A darker photo of the volcanic island of Iwo Jima hangs outside his home office. Its pork chop shape shows the overhang of Mt. Suribachi where LST-758 was beached, February 23, 1945. Resnick is also proud of the copy he has of the original invasion plans as penned in October 1944.
Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and an American victory that serves as a symbol of the treacherous Pacific conflict. Part of the Volcano Islands, Iwo Jima is about 700 miles south of Tokyo, and the first part of Japan that Allied troops invaded. Americans coveted three airstrips for long-range bombing raids on Tokyo and for the soon-to-come invasion of Okinawa. Mt. Surabachi, a 550-foot inactive volcano at the island’s southern tip, was immortalized when five Marines and a Navy corpsman raised the flag on the fifth day of the raging battle. The iconic photograph shot by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal failed to tell the story of the Coast Guard’s connection. Nevertheless, thanks to Resnick, we now have the rest of the story.
On Iwo Jima, more than 22,000 Japanese soldiers defended the island during the 36-day battle attacked by three Marine divisions.
“Nearly 60 years ago, this spot was filled with agony,” said Resnick, tapping his thin finger on the photo.
“I was a 23-year-old kid born and raised in Bronx, N.Y.,” said Resnick. “No young man raised during the Depression whose thoughts were of basic survival, education and betterment of his life was prepared for this type of carnage. We were never taught to kill, to hate or how to fight. We were only thinking about food, had great consideration of our friends and our commitments. We were able in those days to enjoy life without the luxuries.”
That fact served him well as he crammed his gear into his hammock with one man above and one below, sailing in cramped quarters with dozens of Marines and other Coasties.
His memories dart back across the decades. He talks of tank turrets jutting over the blackened sands pocked with caves. The island was devoid of foliage, a stark place for a bloody battle.
Marine Requests A Flag
While on watch, Resnick was in charge of the bridge waiting for orders to debark, on the morning of February 23, 1945. Just after 11:15 a.m., a helmeted young Marine with dark sideburns came aboard LST-758. Resnick received the call from the bow and was told a Marine wished to get a flag to raise on the summit of the volcano.
“I said send him up!” said Resnick.
Renee Gagnon, now immortalized by Rosenthal’s image, was the Marine requesting the flag with just a hint of a New England accent in his voice. Resnick recalls climbing the 10-foot steel ladder to the signal bridge. Rummaging around in the wooden bunting box, he worked his way toward the bottom and felt a large flag, still folded. A signalman confronted Resnick.
“He wanted to know on whose authority I was giving the flag away,” Resnick said. Resnick climbed up to the flying bridge, his nose aligned with the heels of the ship’s commanding officer, LT Felix J. Molenda, as he got to the top rung. It was from there he presented his case. Preoccupied with reprimanding a junior officer, the skipper stammered out, “Uh, very well.”
Resnick scampered down the ladder to the signal bridge and then back down to the bridge, where he handed the Marine the flag. Gagnon then asked for a 20-30 foot pipe as a substitute. Gagnon headed down to the Tank Deck, where he was given a 21-foot galvanized steel steamfitter’s pipe. It weighed more than 150 pounds, Resnick said. Gagnon slung it over his left shoulder, tucked Resnick’s flag under his right arm, and headed up the volcano as Resnick stood on the deck watching history unfold.
“Renee Gagnon struggled mightily but the sand at the base of the volcano was too soft and Gagnon barely made any headway,” notes Resnick. “Then he dropped the pole and pulled it by its nose. Evidently, he called up to the summit and two other Marines shouldered the pipe and Gagnon carried the flag the rest of the way up.”
Resnick said it was probably a 20-minute journey.
Beached under the precipice of Mt. Surabachi, Resnick’s ship lost track of the men as Mt. Surabachi obstructed their view. As LST-758 began leaving the beach in reverse, Resnick heard, “a tremendous and sudden ovation from every man on the beach.”
“There was a whooping and hollering — a tremendous cheer as the flag went up,” said Resnick. “Every ship tooted its horn,” he said. “The memory is very clear and compounded by great sentiment and great apprehension as I recall the sites of death,” said Resnick.
Seeing The Famous Photo
Ira Hayes was one of the two Marines that helped shoulder the pipe. Resnick had met Hayes in Saipan about a week prior.
“I thought he was a decent fellow and we talked about many things,” said Resnick. Three days after the two met, Hayes waited for Resnick as he came off watch at 0800.
“C’mon, I’ll buy ya breakfast,” said Resnick to Hayes. The cook, Willy Howard, came off duty from the galley and the three went down below. Willy had just baked a loaf of bread, which he brought out.
“With great arrogance, a large flour weevil marched out of the bread,” to the disbelief of the trio, said Resnick. “Willy splattered the bug with his moccasin and Ira calmly sliced off a hunk,” says Resnick who recalls the incident with slight disgust. “He told me, you were never raised on a reservation, Bob…I’ll never forget that,” Resnick said.
Hayes was a swarthy, Pima Indian about the same height as Resnick. He was very devoted to his fellow Marines, although Resnick and he became good friends in the week it took to transit the Pacific Ocean toward Iwo Jima. “And as he left the vessel, he gave me his rain poncho. I treasured it for 15 years until my house burned down,” said Resnick.
It wasn’t until months later that he finally saw the AP photograph of Iwo Jima.
“We didn’t have TV, or The New York Times, but my father saved the picture to show me,” he said. Resnick was not on the summit the day it was shot, and never had an image in his mind’s eye until he saw the photo.
Four days prior to the flag incident, Resnick sustained a facial wound for what he laughingly calls, “getting shot in the chinstrap.” Taking a sounding, he wore his helmet without buckling it. The strap dangled on the left side of his face when he suddenly felt a tremendous sting on the right side of his face. “I never knew what it was,” said Resnick. “Major Wann, a Marine, asked what happened to you? You’re bleeding like a pig.”
Resnick looked down and saw blood all over the life jacket he was ordered to wear while remaining at General Quarters alert.
“I got permission to leave my post and see the Pharmacist’s Mate in Sick Bay,” said Resnick. “He couldn’t staunch the bleeding so he used a styptic pencil and suggested stitches, but initially, I declined.” Eventually, he persuaded Resnick that he was a fine seamstress. The scar remains just inside Resnick’s sideburn and he pats it reassuringly.
“Major Wann said, ‘You’re entitled to a Purple Heart, son. You were shot.’ But we were fighting a war; I was busy,” said Resnick, who never filed the paperwork.
Front Seat To History
After the war, Resnick went on to manufacture the hair for Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and dresses for the famed Cabbage Patch doll. Gaining unusual perspective, his memories are now framed by his historic feat 60 years ago.
The inspiration that flag gave 70,000 men wasn’t apparent to Resnick until he attended a Fifth Marine Convention in West Palm Beach, Fla. in August 2001.
“I wanted to see if any of the men I remembered would be there,” he said. “War makes for strange bedfellows and we bonded. This is the group that made history,” he said. “They were the most famous Marine division and my ship took them in.” “Looking back, I had a front seat to the history of this nation,” said Resnick, his voice cracking just a bit. “I am now very proud but I never thought of it that way in those days.”
A former Marine from Texas in his late seventies offered to show Resnick around the convention. The two struck up a conversation and Resnick told him about the flag. “You’re the guy, he asked? My whole life I’ve been wondering where that flag came from.” Then he called over a group of 35-40 Marines.
Word sped through the place.
A portly Marine bellowed, “Are you so damn dumb that you mean to tell me, that you don’t realize that you won that battle single-handedly?”
Resnick laughed. He said he was pleased to feel part of the group, leaving word on the bulletin board that he lived in Boca Raton with his phone number. That night, his phone rang at 11:30 p.m. jarring him awake. A Navy corpsman who had tended the 5th Marine Division during the war, was on the other end. He told me, “I was off the starboard bow of your ship and saw the Marine come out with a pipe on his shoulder and a flag under his arm and I watched him struggle up the mountain,” Resnick said.
For decades, Resnick kept his story quiet, unsure of what to say. A successful businessman, he now frames his life by his involvement in World War II. A father of two and grandfather of three, his own grandson chided him for keeping silent all these years..
“It never occurred to me to seek glory for Bob Resnick,” he said. “But the 779 kept receiving credit for supplying the flag and I wanted to set things right.”
As television anchors and filmmakers call hoping to capture the Coast Guard connection to Iwo Jima, Resnick said he feels very proud. In 2001, the president of the fifth Marine division made Resnick an honorary member. “It made me feel wonderful. They made me feel like part of the group. As they honored me, a couple of the guys started crying. I cried right along with them,” said Resnick.
This article appeared in the Coast Guard's The Reservist Magazine, Volume 51, Issue 6.