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3. Everything / History & Politics / War / World War II

Ira Hayes - an Unwilling Hero

I don't.
Ira Hayes' response to a reporter who had asked 'How do you like the pomp and circumstances?' after a White House ceremony at which President Dwight Eisenhower had praised him as a hero.


Ira Hamilton Hayes was a full blood Pima, born in Sacaton, Arizona, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, on 12 January, 1923. He was the oldest of eight children born to Joe and Nancy Hayes, a poor farming couple trying to scrape by in an arid climate after most of the reservation's water supply had been diverted for the use of white settlers.

Little is known of his childhood, from which most people conclude that it was unremarkable. It is known that, in 1932, the Hayes family moved a few miles South, to Bapchule, Arizona, still within the boundaries of the Reservation.

He is said to have been a serious, intense child who listened closely when the adult men of the Reservation described their experiences during World War I, in which many had served in the Arizona National Guard 158th Infantry. All of these men had volunteered, since they were exempt from military duty as non-citizens of the United States.

Ira left school after grade 10 and went to work so he could add to his family's meagre resources.

Chief Falling Cloud

In August 1942, after the United States had entered World War II, Ira enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. The night before he left for basic training, his parents hosted a community dinner in his honour. All of the guests, including the Tribal Chief, spoke to him of Pima bravery, loyalty and honour. His Tribal Chief also instructed him to be an Honourable Warrior and to bring honour to his people and his family. In addition to what were undoubtedly patriotic motives, Ira also saw enlisting as a way to leave the Reservation, get regular meals and gain the ability to send money to his family.

After basic training, Ira applied for training as a paratrooper, which he successfully completed, earning the nickname 'Chief Falling Cloud', given to him by his comrades and friends in the Marine Corps. He was promoted to Private First Class on 1 December, 1942, the day after he had completed the paratrooper training.

As a member of Company K, 3d Parachute Battalion, 1st Marine Parachute Regiment, Ira spent about eleven months overseas, taking part in the battles at Vella Lavella and Bougainville. While in a foxhole in Bougainville, Hayes and a companion of his were taken by surprise by a Japanese soldier who jumped into the hole. That soldier happened to land on top of Ira's bayonet.

In January 1944, Ira's battalion was given a 30 day leave, during which he met his parents in Phoenix - his first visit to them in close to a year. At the end of that leave, Ira discovered that his battalion had been dissolved, the Marine Corps having decided that the extra pay given to paratroopers was an unnecessary luxury. He was reassigned to Company E, Second Battalion, 28th Marine Division, as a rifleman.

The Photograph

The battle for Iwo Jima started on 20 February, 1945. Ira's Division was one of the first to land, and took heavy casualties. On 23 February, the marines made their way to the summit of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island, and planted a small American flag. The following day, six men, including Hayes, were sent to raise a larger, more visible flag. An Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, joined them.

In 1/400th of a second, Rosenthal snapped off a picture that would forever change the life of Ira Hayes. Rosenthal's photograph of those six men raising the flag gained him a Pulitzer Prize and gained those men fame, whether they wanted it or not.

The image of those six men raising the flag became a symbol of patriotism for Americans for the remainder of the war, and appeared on what became the biggest-selling American postage stamp of all time.

Ira Hayes was the rearmost person in the photograph, which was taken just after the flagpole had left his hands.


The United States War Department wanted heroes. The three men in the photograph who survived the battle for Iwo Jima fit the bill. Ira Hayes was shocked when he learned that President Truman wanted him and the other two men to return to the United States to join the 7th Bond Tour and help raise money for the war efforts. He was never able to think of himself as a hero, and considered the real heroes to be his 'good buddies' who died during the war.

This fund raising tour, in which Ira and the other two men were sent from city to city for publicity purposes was, for Ira, infinitely more nightmarish than the war itself. He asked to be sent back to the front lines, stating: 'sometimes I wish that guy had never made that picture.'

The 'heroes' were sent to 32 cities in all, receiving the applause of the American public, whom Ira thought they were deceiving, shaking hands, attending banquets, signing autographs and giving interviews.

Ira hated the lie he felt he was living and suffered from a deep sense of guilt that he, and not those who had died in battle, should be so honoured. He later complained:

How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?

Everywhere they went, they found that people wanted to buy the 'heroes' a drink. Ira accepted those offers gratefully, hoping to drive away the demons of his guilt with alcohol. Shortly after the tour began, Ira was drinking heavily. In Chicago, he received orders to return to the 28th Marines in Hilo, Hawaii. Three weeks later, he was promoted to corporal. On 1 December, 1945, he was honourably discharged from the US Marine Corps.

After the War

By the time he was discharged, Ira was a hopeless alcoholic. He returned to the Reservation, where he found that the Pima were still without adequate water for their crops and had been largely forgotten by American society. On the reservation, he found menial jobs picking crops or working day labor, and continued to drink heavily. In addition to well-meaning friends, Ira found himself receiving attention, and drinks, from tourists who kept visiting the Reservation to see 'the Indian who raised the flag'.

He never did succeed at seeing himself as being worthy of the fame he'd received for what he considered just being in the right place at the right time to have been victimised by that photograph.

Ira became a drifter and a loner, filled with his own guilt and despairing of any hope for the Pima Nation in general. Wherever he went, he found that there were people who recognised him and wanted to buy the hero a drink. Ira was arrested for being drunk and disorderly repeatedly.

Hoping to get his life under control, Ira filed for relocation to Chicago under the Indian Relocation Program, hoping that his fame as a war hero would not follow him there. He was accepted into the program in 1953 and was offered a job as a tool grinder at International Harvester.

To his dismay, Ira was 'officially' greeted as a hero by local Indian organisations at the Chicago train station. Before long, he was jailed again for drunkenness and lost his job at Harvester. It was at that point that Ira Hayes again returned to the Reservation and simply gave up.

The Death of Ira Hayes

On 24 January, 1955, after a night of drinking and gambling, Ira Hayes fell into the irrigation ditch that was the Reservation's sole source of water, where he died of exposure. He was commemorated by the Pima as 'a hero to everyone but himself' and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 34, Plot 470A. In the course of less than ten years, he had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly a total of 51 times. He was 32 years old.

The Other Men in the Photograph

Mike Strank

Mike Strank was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, who had been brought to America in infancy by his father. At Iwo Jima, he was a sergeant and squad leader. The men serving under his command called him 'the old man' because of his advanced years. He was 24. He was killed at Iwo Jima when a shell, almost certainly from an American destroyer providing protective cover, exploded and tore his heart out of his body.

Harlon Block

Harlon Block was an all-state American football player in Texas, where he had been raised in a pacifist, Seventh Day Adventist home. He enlisted in the Marine Corps will all the senior members of his team. Harlon took over the squad when Mike Strank died. A few hours later, he was hit by a mortar round and yelled 'They killed me'. He died holding his own intestines in his hands. He was 21.

Franklin Runyon Sousley

Franklin Runyon Sousley was a fun-loving country boy from Eastern Kentucky, whose father had died when he was eight years old, leaving him as 'the man of the family'. A sniper shot him. When someone shouted 'How ya' doing'? Sousley replied 'Not bad. I don't feel anything'. Then he fell over, dead. When the telegram notifying his mother of his death was delivered, it went to the General Store in his hometown and was then carried by a barefoot boy who ran it up to her farm. Her neighbors reported that they could hear her scream all night and into the morning. Those neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away. Franklin was 19.

Rene Gagnon

Rene Gagnon was the child of French Canadian mill workers in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was a scared, self-conscious young man who kept a photograph of his girlfriend in the webbing of his helmet for protection. It must have done him some good as he escaped death and even injury at Iwo Jima.

We're informed by his only son, Rene Gagnon Jnr, that Rene and his wife Pauline endured many ups and downs in their relationship, but they also owned a Travel Agency - Jubilee Travel - which was very successful for a time. But it eventually became apparent that that working together so closely had become the cause of so many conflicts between them; Rene therefore decided to work at different jobs that brought personal satisfaction more than financial reward. When he died in 1979, aged 54, he was the head of maintenance at Colonial Village in Manchester, New Hampshire.

John Bradley

John Bradley was an altar boy from a devout Roman Catholic household in Antigo, Wisconsin. He joined the Navy hoping to avoid combat and ended up as a medical corpsman with the Marines. On Iwo Jima, he held about 200 boys as they died before he was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated to Guam. He, like Ira Hayes, refused to accept the 'hero' designation. When one of his sons informed him that a teacher had said that his father was a hero, he looked at that eight year old child and said 'I want you always to remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back'. After the war, he refused all interviews and gave every member of his family strict instructions that they were to tell any member of the media who called that he was in Canada, fishing. John Bradley died in 1994 and never spoke to anyone about his experiences at Iwo Jima. His family didn't learn that he had earned the Navy Cross until after his death.

The Song

The life and death of Ira Hayes inspired Peter LaFarge to write and record The Ballad of Ira Hayes in 1962. The song has also been recorded by Johnny Cash (1964), Bob Dylan (1970), Townes Van Zandt (1992) and Kinky Friedman (1995).

The life of Ira Hayes after the war is perhaps best summarised by this lyric from that song:

Now Ira returned a hero
celebrated throughout the land
He was wined an' speeched an' honoured,
everybody shook his hand
But he was just a Pima Indian,
no money, no crops, no chance

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A1118396 (Edited)

Written and Researched by:

Edited by:
NAITA (Join ViTAL - A1014625)

Date: 03   September   2003

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Referenced Guide Entries
Arizona, USA
Bob Dylan - Musician
Texas, USA
Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Parachute Systems
Roman Catholicism
Seventh-day Adventism
The 'Americanization' of the Pima Nation
The 1945 Battle for Iwo Jima

Related BBC Pages
BBC History

Referenced Sites
Gila River Indian Reservation
Joe Rosenthal
Rosenthal's photograph
Arlington National Cemetery
Navy Cross

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