Heroes are every day people who are called upon to face insurmountable challenges and somehow prevail. Ira Hayes, a full blooded Pima Indian, was born on the Gila River Indian Reservation, just a few miles south of Chandler, Arizona, on January 12, 1923. He was the oldest of eight children born to Nancy and Joe Hayes.
Ira Hayes was a quiet, solemn little boy, brought up by his deeply religious Presbyterian mother, who read the Bible aloud to her children, encouraged them to read on their own and made sure that they got the best available education. Ira attended the elementary school in Sacaton and had good grades. Upon completion, he entered the Phoenix Indian School, where he also did very well for a while. At the age of 19, in 1942, he quit school and enlisted in the Marines. Such a move was quite out of character for this shy young man, who was never known to be competitive or enterprising.
Ira Hayes had been following the war reports closely. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he felt it his patriotic duty to serve. The Tribe approved, and after a proper sendoff Ira Hayes left for the boot camp.
Ira appreciated the discipline, the challenge, and the camaraderie of his Marine training. He applied for parachute training and was accepted. James Bradley, in his book "The Flags of our Fathers," said that his buddies dubbed him "Chief Falling Cloud." Ira was sent to the South Pacific.
Iwo Jima is a tiny volcanic island about 700 mi. south of Tokyo. Mount Suribachi is the highest peak at an elevation of 516 ft. It was a possible supply point for the allies and it was important to prevent the enemy from using it as such. On February 19, 1945 a large contingent of Marines landed on the island, facing an equally substantial army of Japanese defenders. One of the bloodiest, fiercest four days of combat ensued, in the course of which the Marines took more casualties than in several months of battle at Guadalcanal. This is where events took an unexpected turn for Ira Hayes.
On February 23, 1945, forty Marines climbed Mount Suribachi in order to plant the American Flag on the top of the hill. Joe Rosenthal, an AP photographer, took several shots of the event. One of them became the famous photograph of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the picture which soon became the universal symbol that it still is today. Joe Rosenthal received the Pulitzer Prize. The six men planting the flag in the photo were Mike Strank from Pennsylvania, Harlon Block from Texas, Franklin Sousley from Kentucky, John Bradley from Wisconsin, Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire and Ira Hayes from Arizona. Strank, Harlon, and Sousley died in combat.
The three survivors stayed alive to battle their own demons. Soon the heroes' parades began. The War Department needed heroes and these men were chosen. They went to Washington and met President Truman. The Treasury Department needed money and initiated the bond drive began. The heroes, including Ira Hayes, were paraded through 32 cities. John Bradley and Ira Hayes resented the public displays in which they were the pawns. Rene Gagnon enjoyed it and hoped to build his future on it.
When all the hoopla was over, they went home. John Bradley married his sweetheart, raised a family and never talked about the war. It is said that he cried in his sleep. Ira Hayes returned to the reservation more turned inward, more enigmatic than ever. Whatever he saw and experienced remained locked within him. It has been said that he felt guilty for having been alive while so many of his comrades died. He felt guilty that he was considered a hero although so many had sacrificed so much more. He worked at menial jobs. He drowned his sorrow and sought salvation in the bottle. He was arrested about fifty times for drunkenness. On January 24, 1955, on a cold and dreary morning Ira Hayes was found dead -- literally dead drunk -- just a short distance from his home. The coroner said it was an "accident."
Ira Hamilton Hayes was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was 32 years old.
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