Ira Hamilton Hayes was a Pima Native American paratrooper in the US Marines who was part of an iconic photo which depicted the raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in 1945 during World War II. Hayes was born to Nancy and Jobe on the Gila River Indian Reservation in the US state of Arizona in 1923. His parents were both members of the Pima tribe, who had lived in the region long before they came into contact with the first Europeans in the late 17th century.
In the year of their son’s birth, Nancy and Jobe hadn’t been given US citizenship. Though the US Congress had passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1914, the state of Arizona didn’t allow Native Americans the right to vote till the year 1948. Despite this lack of acknowledgment by the government, the family proudly displayed an American flag on a wall of their home. Ira Hayes was a quiet child who, according to the people who knew him could remain with another person for hours without saying a word. But he still had a sharp mind and read voraciously.
Enlisting in the Marines
Hayes worked as a carpenter when the Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941. This led to the US entering World War II. Hayes enlisted in the US Marines in 1942 and volunteered to join the elite paratrooper division after having successfully completed his basic training. This in itself was a remarkable feat as paratroopers were a new kind of soldier created in the ancient art of war and the training that had to be undergone at the paratrooper school was extremely hard. Hayes was the first Pima in history to become a paratrooper and was given the nickname of ‘Chief Falling Cloud’ when he graduated from the US Marine Corps paratrooper school. His family and friends at the reservation were thrilled as he had made them proud to be Pimas.
However, this period of celebration became a distant memory for Hayes and his comrades when they were transported to the Pacific Theater of the war a few months later. The US Marines had their trial by fire in 1943 and 1944 during the fierce fighting at Bougainville near the Solomon Islands which intended to drive out the invading Japanese forces there. However, it was the fierce battle of Iwo Jima which would make Hayes an immortal figure in history.
Raising the American flag on Iwo Jima
The occupation of the small island of Iwo Jima was extremely crucial to American war plans in the Pacific Theater as its closeness to the mainland of the Japanese Archipelago made it an ideal base for aerial missions against Japan. The US Marines started landing on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. The island was defended by more than 20,000 battle-hardened Japanese soldiers who were entrenched in their fortifications on the island and who were willing to fight to the death. Only 200 Japanese soldiers ultimately survived the battle. The highest point on the island of Iwo Jima was Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano that held symbolic importance for whoever held the island. The Marines, after indulging with the Japanese in fierce fighting for four days, made their way up the mountain’s slopes.
Around the time Associated Press (AP) correspondent, Joe Rosenthal arrived on Iwo Jima. On the island’s shore, he received the information that a group of marines was planning to plant a flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Rosenthal went up the volcano escorted by two marines over the bodies of the Japanese soldiers which lay scattered on the slopes of the mountain. When they finally reached the top of the mountain, Rosenthal came across the group of Marines who were preparing to raise the flag and took a photo that would become among the most iconic in American and world history.
The group of Marines who planted the flag were Harold Schultz, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, Harlon Block, and Ira Hayes. The other American soldiers who were still fighting on the mountain broke into cheers when they saw the American flag flying above them. Though the photograph had made Iwo Jima famous forever, the victory there came at a very high price as 6,000 American soldiers including three of the men in the picture died in the battle and 17,000 were wounded.
Hayes and the other soldiers who had raised the flag were sent to Washington, D. C. to meet with the US President in April 1945. Rosenthal’s picture had become famous immediately on its publication as it appeared on the front pages of newspapers in the US. Rosenthal was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize after the Pulitzer Prize Board which generally awarded photos that had been taken in the previous year, made an exception and chose his picture of the flag-raising as the awardee. The photograph in the coming years became the most reproduced in history.
When Hayes returned to the US, he was honored as a war hero by the state, applauded by politicians, and taken across the country to help in the sale of war bonds. He was even hired to play himself in the John Wayne movie, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’. He became the recipient of innumerable letters from admirers, and several visitors came to visit his reservation. Many would walk right up to him and ask if he was the Native American who had raised the flag on Iwo Jima.
Hayes’ haunting memories of the war and his tragic death
However, all the public admiration didn’t erase the terrible memories of the war in Hayes’ mind. Instead of using his publicity tour as a way out of the war, Hayes wanted to return to his fellow soldiers and the battle. He wasn’t comfortable being called a hero because according to him, only 5 men from his platoon of 45 had survived, and only 27 men from his entire company of 250 escaped death or injury. He could never reconcile his status as a celebrity with the thought that so many of his friends, whom he considered better than himself, had died on Iwo Jima and would never return alive much less to the White House like him.
Hayes became an alcoholic and tried to drown his pain of being a survivor and came to regret being a part of the famous photo saying once that he sometimes wished that Rosenthal had never taken it. In November 1954, the US Marine Corps Memorial was inaugurated at a dedication ceremony in Washington D. C. Both US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ira Hayes attended the opening. President Eisenhower praised Hayes as ‘a national war hero’. The statue unveiled at the memorial was a bronze replica of the famous Rosenthal photo which had been more of a curse for Hayes than a blessing.
Around 10 weeks after the ceremony, Ira Hayes was found dead on the ground outside his home in Sacaton, Arizona during the frigid temperature of January. His death was ruled by the coroner to be the result of alcohol poisoning and exposure. Hayes was just 32 years old at the time of his death. He was referred to as ‘A hero to everyone but himself’. Large numbers of people attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was finally at peace and reunited with many of his comrades.