Wilton’s connection to Iwo Jima flag raising
Friday, Feb. 23, marks the 73rd anniversary of the historic flag raising at Iwo Jima during World War II. It is not well known, but Wilton’s American Legion Post 86 has a connection to that historic event. The flag flying in the iconic photo taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal came from a ship commanded by Joseph A. Hopkins, a former commander of Post 86.
Hopkins was captain of Tank Landing Ship USS LST 779, which was ordered to Iwo Jima two days before any other LST during the Marine invasion of the Japanese island on Feb. 19, 1945.
“The marines desperately needed their largest guns, 75mm Howitzers and the 200 marines to man them which I was transporting,” Hopkins wrote in a letter to Dr. Norman Boas in 1977, recalling the events surrounding the battle. “The entire marine invasion force was pinned down on the beach and had to advance off the beach.”
Iwo Jima, which was heavily fortified by the Japanese, is dominated by Mt. Suribachi, a dormant volcano 546 feet high. It was strategically important because the Japanese used it as a vantage point to fire on American forces. The Marines managed to capture it four days into the battle, on Feb. 23.
From the time Hopkins arrived at Iwo Jima, “my LST was constantly landing more troops from APAs onto the beach adjacent to Mt. Suribachi until finally the marines secured the mountain and raised a small flag over it,” he wrote. “As this flag could not be seen by all the troops on the island or by the ships at sea, a marine came aboard my ship and asked for the largest Navy flag we had.”
The first flag raising was the subject of another photo, one taken by Marine Sgt. Louis R. Lowery. That flag was raised at 10:20 a.m. on Feb. 23, the first time the stars and stripes flew over Japanese territory. Lowery was shooting for Leatherneck, the magazine of the Marine Corps. His photo was published weeks later. Unfortunately for Lowery, the flag was small and publication came late.
When that marine came aboard LST 779, Hopkins reached into his flag bag and pulled out what would become one of the most famous flags in history. Suitably large at 96 by 56 inches, it was raised around 3 p.m. by six marines, three of whom would give their lives shortly thereafter.
Rosenthal, shooting for the Associated Press, was not the only photographer to capture that shot.
“The second flag raising was photographed by a number of photographers who were either killed or lost their film while being fired upon or in small boat sinkings, except for Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph which symbolized the spirit of the armed forces in the Pacific,” Hopkins wrote.
Rosenthal’s film made it to Hawaii and was then radioed to the U.S. mainland, where it was published in Sunday newspapers on Feb. 25 all over the country. One of the most recognizable images of the war, the Marine Corps War Memorial was modeled after it nearly a decade later. The photo won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, the only one to do so in the same year it was published.
In his letter to Boas, a copy of which is in the Post 86 archives, Hopkins refers to a painting that includes his LST 779 that hangs in the Washington, D.C., Marine Historical Museum “next to a miniature of the Iwo Jima flag raising monument and the tattered end of my flag framed for posterity.”
Hopkins was commander of Post 86 for a number of years and put together a photo collage of LST 779 with references to the battle of Iwo Jima. It hangs in the post. Hopkins died in 1977.