Ira Hayes – Iwo Jima Flag Raiser & Very Reluctant Hero

Ira Hamilton Hayes was one of five men who helped raise the American flag over Mt. Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945. This event was immortalized in a black-and-white photograph that symbolized America’s inevitable victory in WWII. Sadly, the end of that war would also spell Hayes’ own.

Hayes was a Pima Indian of the Akimel O’odham people in Arizona. According to friends and family, he was an extremely shy kid who could go for days without talking. He was also incredibly intelligent, becoming literate at four and achieving fluency in English – something unusual for the Pima back then.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, 17-year-old Hayes told friends that he was going to become a Marine. On 26 August 1942, he did just that, and volunteered to become a Marine paratrooper. They called him Chief Falling Cloud at the Parachute Training School and promoted him to Private First Class on 1 December 1942.

Hayes saw his first actual combat on 4 December 1943 as a platoon automatic rifleman with Company K at the Bougainville Campaign in Papua New Guinea. He then landed on Iwo Jima on 19 February 1945 as part of Company E, 28th Marine Regiment of the 5th Marine Division where he’d find unwanted and unwelcome fame.

The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted till March 26 and became one of the bloodiest battles during WWII. In its aftermath, some 6,821 Americans were killed, while another 19,217 were wounded. The Japanese, however, lost between 17,845 and 18,375 men.

Taken on 10 November 1942, 19-year-old Hayes is about to jump from a plane at the Marine Corps Parachute School
Taken on 10 November 1942, 19-year-old Hayes is about to jump from a plane at the Marine Corps Parachute School

 

On the first day alone, 760 Marines had to make a near-suicidal charge from the beaches to secure their position. It didn’t take them long to discover the reinforced bunkers hiding in the dark volcanic sand. Japanese artillerymen would open metal doors, fire at the Americans, then shut them quickly to avoid return fire.

The solution was to force open those doors and throw a grenade in. Once the Marines got inside, they found a system of tunnels which made their guns useless because of the risk of ricocheting bullets. The solution was to use flamethrowers. Since the bunkers were connected to each other through tunnels, however, the Japanese would regroup and retake areas the Americans had taken earlier.

At night, more Japanese would emerge from tunnels to attack American positions from the rear. At the start, some who spoke English would call out for a Navy corpsman. A few Americans fell for this trick and ended up being shot.

The Americans eventually made it to the base of mount Suribachi – an extinct volcano. Most of the Japanese had been defending the beaches, leaving only a smaller force to defend the mountain. Others chose to stay within their tunnel network hoping to pick off American forces as best they could, but they were running out of supplies and ammunition.

A picture of Mt. Suribachi taken in 2001
A picture of Mt. Suribachi taken in 2001

By February 23, the Americans had managed to isolate the mountain from the rest of the island. To minimize the risk to the rest, several Marine patrols, each consisting of four men, were sent up the north side to clear the way of Japanese soldiers and to find the best route to the top. To signal their capture of the summit, they were to raise an American flag.

The first signal flag was planted at around 10:30 that morning. With them was Louis R. Lowery, another Marine who shot a picture before getting shot at himself when the Japanese opened fire on the group. A grenade followed, causing Lowery to fall on the other side of the volcano’s crater, damaging his camera but not the film. Since that picture wasn’t released till 1947, however, it never became as famous as the second shot.

The first flag raising picture on Mt. Suribachi
The first flag raising picture on Mt. Suribachi

Down below, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy had just landed when he saw the flag go up. He thought it too small to be easily seen, so he asked to have it as a souvenir, but Colonel Johnson (commander of the 2nd Battalion) believed his Marines deserved it since they had captured that section of the island. Rather than argue with the Secretary, he took a larger flag and sent Pfc. Rene Gagnon to take it to the top.

Hayes, Sergeant Michal Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, and corpsman John Henry Jack” Bradley were then ordered to lay some telephone communication wiring at the summit. Accompanying them was Gagnon with Johnson’s flag and Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.

Thus history was made. Rosenthal got a Pulitzer Prize for Photography and a previously unknown Native American became a national hero.

Except that the captioning on the picture was wrong. Block was misidentified as Sgt. Henry Hansen – and Hayes couldn’t accept that. Block was his friend and the man died on March 1, mere days after the flag raising. But America had its icons and what was another dead hero? So the Marine Corps told Hayes to just shut up about it, already.

 

Identifying who's who on the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising picture
Identifying who’s who on the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising picture. By Aeoris – CC BY-SA 3.0

By April, Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon were the only survivors of that famous photo and they were recruited by President Roosevelt to raise war bonds for the Seventh War Loan Drive. The men did their part till the war ended, but Hayes still couldn’t let Block lie.

In 1946, he hitchhiked some 1,300 miles from his home in Arizona to Texas to visit Block’s family and let them know that their son was one of the flag raisers. The Marine Corps finally corrected the error in 1947.

Though he finally laid that issue to rest, Hayes couldn’t cope with his own issues and he became an alcoholic. Most believe it was the fame that got to him, others insist it was the horrors of the war, but whatever the case, he ended up getting arrested 52 times for drunken behavior.

In 1949, he had a brief role as himself in the movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, with John Wayne. Despite that, he just couldn’t get his own act together.

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Ira’s grave on Arlington National Cemetery. By Tony Fischer – CC BY 2.0

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.