• Notes From The Frontier

Ira Hayes


According to military statistics, Native Americans have served in the military more per capita than any other ethnic group. (Wanna guess who's a close second? African-Americans.) Native Americans also have been decorated more for bravery (per capita) by the U.S. military than any other ethnic group.

Perhaps THE most iconic photograph in American military history includes a Native American Marine Corporal, Ira Hayes, raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Ira Hamilton Hayes was born in the Gila River Pima tribe, the eldest of six children. His father was a World War I veteran. Ira was a very quiet child and learned to read and write by the time he was four--even though many Pima children did not learn English at the time. He was a voracious reader and grew up dreaming of being a Marine. In 1942 he joined the Marine Corps, then volunteered as an elite paratrooper of the ParaMarines. His code name was "Chief Falling Cloud."

Hayes was part of the first ever ground assault for the U.S. Marines on Japanese soil on the island of Iwo Jima, heavily fortified by 20,000 Japanese soldiers dug deep in pits and tunnels. (Only 200 would survive the final battle.) An inactive volcanic mountain, Mount Suribachi, rose out of the flat island. Forty Marines were selected to charge the mountain and post a flag and telecommunications at the pinnacle. Six survived the climb to the top on February 23, 1945. Ira Hayes was one of them.

Together the six Marines planted the flag in what would become one of the famous photographs in U.S. history and the most iconic embodiment of patriotism. It won a Pulitzer Prize for war photographer Joe Rosenthal and would appear on the front page of nearly every major U.S. newspaper within days.

Three of the six Marines died on the way back down the mountain. And the fourth, "Jack" Bradley, from Antigo, Wisconsin, died in combat just two days later. (Many years later, his son would find his war letters and write "Flags of our Fathers," which Clint Eastwood made into a critically acclaimed movie in 2006.)

Only Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon survived. The U.S. military quickly spotlighted them as heroes and sent them to Washington D.C. to meet President Franklin Roosevelt, then tour the country selling war bonds. Hayes was promoted to Corporal. The humble and quiet Ira was uncomfortable with his fame and suffered survivor remorse (and probably PTSD) because so many of his fellow Marines had died.

Hayes became famous. Books and songs were written about him, including Johnny Cash's "Ballad of Ira Hayes." Many movies were made about the raising of the flag, including the 1949 war epic, Sands of Iwo Jima, with John Wayne, in which Ira Hayes played himself.

But this story of heroism does not end well. In November 1954, the stunning U.S. Marine Corps Memorial of Iwo Jima was unveiled in Washington D.C. President Dwight Eisenhower lauded Corporal Hayes, who stood beside him, as a national hero. Ten weeks after that ceremony, Ira Hayes would be dead. A quiet and humble man, he could not deal with the nation's adulation of him and the demons of leaving 6,000 of his fellow Marines in a mass grave back on Iwo Jima. He died of alcohol poisoning and exposure in a puddle of water 2" deep.

On this Memorial Day, remember Corporal Ira Hayes, and all who gave their lives for our freedom, as Ira Hayes most surely did.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima, by WWII Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. Ira Hayes is at far left, his hands reaching for the pole. (Bottom left) Ira as a young Marine. (Bottom right) Ira Hayes, as himself, in the 1949 movie, Sands of Iwo Jima.

© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER          

Posted May 26, 2019, Memorial Day, on Facebook

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