Ira Hayes, Arlington National Cemetery (Native-American Hero)
Image by Tony the Misfit
Ira Hayes (1923 – 1955):
There are probably no more tragic stories than that of Ira Hayes. Born on the Pima Indian Reservation in Sacaton, Arizona, Ira was the son of a poor farming family. His people had struggled for years to make a living in the arid conditions of the Reservation and had little success beyond survival. At one time the Pima were successful farmers but that was before the US Government cut off their water supply and created a situation where they could no longer grow enough crops to eat.
Until the beginning of W.W.II, his life was probably unnoticed by anyone more than a few miles from his birthplace. When America called its men to arms Ira answered this call and joined the US Marine Corps for several reasons: He would be able to leave the Reservation, eat regularly and send money home to his family to help them have a better life. His Tribal Chief told him to be an Honorable Warrior and to bring honor upon his people. Ira never failed to do this. He was a dedicated Marine who was admired by his peers who fought alongside him in three major battles in the Pacific.
February 23, 1945, at age 23, an event occurred that would forever place Ira Hayes in this nation’s history books and irrevocably change his life. On a hilltop above a Pacific island, a small group of Marines struggled to raise the American flag to claim victory over the Japanese occupancy. As the flag was being raised, Ira rushed to help his comrades just as the photographer snapped what was to become one of the most famous pictures in history. That picture was the "Flag Raising At Iwo Jima" and it is Ira’s hands that are outstretched to give the final thrust that planted this symbol of American victory. Six men were caught in that photograph, three of them died shortly afterwards. The battle of Iwo Jima was a costly one for our troops. Only 5 of Ira’s platoon of 45 survived and of his company of 250, only 27 escaped death or injury.
Ira Hayes was stunned when he was told that President Truman wanted him and the other survivors to return to the United State to join the 7th Bond Tour to help raise money for the war efforts. He never considered himself a hero and often said the real heroes were "my good buddies" who died during the battles. What was supposed to be an easy tour of duty turned into the worst ordeal of Ira’s military life. He never understood why he was called an American hero and struggled with the adulation that was heaped on him everywhere he went. Over and over he made statements that he was not a hero but reminded everyone of the brave men who had died and deserved this honor.
By the time Ira was released from duty he was hopelessly addicted to alcohol. The Bond Tour had been a battle that had taken more of a toll on him than any he fought in the Pacific. It seemed that this nation found one way to honor its heroes: Buy them a drink! Ira went back to the Reservation to escape the unwanted attention he’d be forced to bear but people did not stop writing and coming to see "the Indian who raised the flag." Ira’s only escape from the conflict he felt over being viewed as a hero was the bottle. Over and over he made statements like; "I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me." After a ceremony where he was praised by President Eisenhower once again for being a hero, a reporter asked Ira, "How do you like the pomp & circumstances?" Ira just hung his head and said, "I don’t."
For the next few years Ira Hayes was a drifter, drinker and loner. He never married, was often arrested for public drunkenness and was filled with despair over the plight of his people. He had been wined and dined by the rich and powerful, had been immortalized in American history but he was still no more than an Indian on a dried up Reservation now that he’d come home. There was still no water, no crops and no hope for a better life for the Pima or him. All this time he still struggled with his own inability to reconcile himself as being worthy of the fame he’d received for simply being one of the lucky ones who lived through such a horrible war. Ira never saw his military service as any more than just being an "Honorable Warrior."
In 1954, Ira Hayes attended the dedication ceremony in Washington, D. C. for the Iwo Jima Memorial. This monument was a bronze cast replica of the now famous photograph of the flag raising, created by Felix DeWeldon. Within 10 weeks of this celebration Ira Hamilton Hayes would be dead at age 33. After another night of drinking and still lamenting over his fallen "buddies", Ira fell drunk in an irrigation ditch and froze to death, alone and forgotten by a country that had called him a hero. The ditch where he died was the single source of water that was provided for his people by the same government he’d proudly served.
Johnny Cash sings "The Ballad of Ira Hayes: