Warship Wednesday March 19, The Tales of Harnett County

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday March 19, The Tales of Harnett County


Here we see the utilitarian beauty that is the LST-542-class tank landing ship USS Harnett County (LST-821). Most LST’s, first conceived during WWII to drop troops and supplies right on a beachline from their scissor doors on the bow, are named for counties, and Harnett County (named after a North Carolina county which is a part of the greater Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill area) is the only US Navy ship ever on the Navy List to hold this name.

(Not LST821, but shown to give you an idea of the LST doors)

(Not LST821, but shown to give you an idea of the LST doors)

But she didn’t always have this moniker. When she was laid down 19 Sept 1944 at the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Company, Evansville, Indiana, she just had her hull number as a reference (LST-821). You see the Navy built so many of these 4000-ton, 328-ft long ships that they were just given numbers. She did not pick up the USS Harnett County dub until 1955.

The LST-542 class provided yeoman’s service across both the European and Pacific TOs during WWII. These ships were improvements from the older 491-class and added a navigation bridge, the installation of a water distillation plant with a capacity of 4,000 gallons per day, the removal of the tank deck ventilator tubes from the center section of the main deck, the strengthening of the main deck to carry a smaller Landing Craft Tank (LCT), and an upgrade in armor and armament, with the addition of a 3″/50 caliber gun. She could float in as little as 2-feet of water when unloaded and carry a landing team of 16 officers, 147 enlisted men.

When commissioned 14 November 1944, she was rushed to the Pacific and landed men and cargo on Okinawa during the pivotal battles there in 1945. The, when peace broke out, she was decommissioned and placed into reserve. She won a battlestar for that campaign.

In Vietnam, note the shallow water mud stir, the tiny 26-foot PBRs alongside, and the choppers on deck

In Vietnam, note the shallow water mud stir, the tiny 26-foot PBRs alongside, and the choppers on deck

When Vietnam came she was dusted out of her decade in mothballs in 1966 to provide logistical and troop support during that conflict, taking part in more than a dozen operations over the course of four years, winning 3 Navy Unit Commendations, 2 Presidential Unit Citations, and 9 battlestars. For a long time she served as a Patrol Craft Tender, gassing up Navy PBR’s, Navy SEAL teams and Seawolf helicopters, and USCG units and as such was re-designated USS Harnett County (AGP-821). As such she was a proud member and mothership of the Mekong Delta Yacht Club

In October 1970 she was decommissioned as part of the US draw-down in Indochina and transferred the same day to the South Vietnamese Navy.

In the distance as part of the exiled RVN fleet in 1975 sailing into Subic

In the distance as part of the exiled RVN fleet in 1975 sailing into Subic

There, her name was changed to the RVNS My Tho (pennant number HQ-800) and continued to serve extensively in that conflict for another five years under a new flag. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, the My Tho, along with a flotilla of more than 30 other RVN ships, sailed, packed with refugees to the Philippines. There, they were an exiled fleet in being for a country that no longer existed for nearly a year.

On 5 Apr 1976, after a year in limbo, the old LST was turned over to the Philippine Navy in a deal where she was added to that country’s navy list as the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), to be used to carry PN marines around the huge archipelago, which she did for the next 23 years.


As a show of territorial stakes claiming, the Philippine Navy grounded BRP Sierra Madre on the semi-submerged Ayungin Reef (Second Thomas Reef) 9.795°N 115.856°E, part of the Spratly Island chain in 1999 to serve as something of a semi-fixed outpost in the South China Sea some 105nm from the Philippines itself. This reef is disputed between China and the Philippines, so with the Sierra Madre outpost there, Manila has a much more tacit claim to the reef and its adjacent waters (and sea bed). Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys for themselves.

She still has a 40mm forward mount and the PI Navy has several of these old guns that work, but whether the 40mm shown still fires is anyone's guess.

She still has a 40mm forward mount and the PI Navy has several of these old guns that work, but whether the 40mm shown still fires is anyone’s guess.

For the past 15 years, a rotating detachment of 8 marines led by a senior Sergent, a Navy corpsman, and a Navy radio operator (with a pair of satphones) have called the grounded, rusting, 70-year old ship home.

From a 2013 NYT article about the life of these lonely detachments :

Yanto lived alone at the stern of the boat, in a room with a bed, a mosquito net, an M-16 propped against the wall and nothing but a tarp wrapped around a steel bar to separate him from the sea. He also took care of the three fighting cocks on the boat. They were lashed to various perches at the stern and took great pleasure in crowing at anybody who tried to use the “toilet,” a seatless ceramic bowl suspended over the water by iron pipes and plywood.

Yanto has a wife and a 6-year-old son back in Zamboanga City. Like the others, he is able to talk to his family once a week or so, when they call in to one of the two satellite phones that the men take care to keep dry and charged. “It’s enough for me,” he said, of the 5 or 10 minutes he gets on the phone with his family. “What’s important is that I heard their voice.”

Like Yanto, Loresto was wearing a sleeveless jersey with “MARINES” printed across the front and a section of mesh between the chest and waistline, uniforms for the world’s most exotic basketball team. “It’s a lonely place,” Loresto said. “But we make ourselves busy, always busy.”

The remote crew spends their time aboard the Sierra Madre as best they can. (NYT photo)

The remote crew spends their time aboard the Sierra Madre as best they can. (NYT photo)

The Chinese of course are not very happy with the BRP Sierra Madre and recently have prevented exchanging personnel on and delivering supplies to the grounded ship hoping the Philippines would quit their claim. This had led to the PI switching to aerial resupply from the main islands.

And so goes the ongoing saga of the Harnett County.

If ships could talk.



Displacement:     1,625 long tons (1,651 t) light
4,080 long tons (4,145 t) full
Length:     328 ft (100 m)
Beam:     50 ft (15 m)
Draft:     Unloaded :
2 ft 4 in (0.71 m) forward
7 ft 6 in (2.29 m) aft
Loaded  with upto payloads between 1600 and 1900 tons as well as troops
8 ft 2 in (2.49 m) forward
14 ft 1 in (4.29 m) aft
Propulsion:     2 × General Motors 12-567 diesel engines, two shafts, twin rudders
Speed:     12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) (grounded since 1999, inoperable)
Boats & landing
craft carried:     Two LCVPs
Troops:     16 officers, 147 enlisted men
Complement: 7 officers, 104 enlisted men (current, 10-man detachment of Philippine Navy and marines)
Armament:     • 1 × single 3″/50 caliber gun
• 8 × 40 mm guns (most removed 1966)
• 12 × 20 mm guns (removed 1966)

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  • These articles are fascinating – thank you.

    But, please pass to the author the fact that, as a proper noun, Marine is always capitalized (as in: to carry PN marines around the huge archipelago, ).

    Thanks again for your very interesting articles.

    Semper Fi!

    Liam Murphy

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  • Robert J. Wolf

    I served aboard the USS Harnett County LST 821 in Vietnam Nam 1969 as a hospital corpsman. I came aboard in the harbor at Vung Tau, Viet Nam as it was heading to Japan for repair after being hit by rocket fire in the bridge area while patrolling one of the rivers in South Viet Nam. At that time, she had no radar service or radio because of the damage and the evaporator was damaged so fresh water was very limited while heading to Japan. She wasn’t very pretty then and the voyage to Japan was with no exaggeration, a harrowing adventure , after repairs were made she returned to service back in Vietnam Nam I have to say I was proud to serve with her and her crew.

  • Pingback: Philippines flexing over demands they unreef their ancient LST | laststandonzombieisland

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