The Legacy of Ira Hayes
The Marine who went to war. Creation Date Tuesday, 29 May 2012. Hits 6271
On this Memorial Day, I wanted to honor the memory of one of the great Marines who has gone before us and set the mark that those who follow try our best to live up to. To many people who see the Iwo Jima monument, it is an iconic picture of America at war. To Marines, it is a reminder of one of our great accomplishments in battle. To the Marines that were there that day, it was an inspiration to keep fighting a battle that at times seemed unwinable. To Ira Hayes, it was a snapshot of a moment in time with his "good buddies," some of which would never walk off of that miserable island.
The leader of the mission to raise the flag on Iwo Jima was Sergeant Mike Strank. He instructed his men to raise the largest flag they had so that "every Marine on this cruddy island can see it." Mike had been offered a promotion 2 months before the battle but he turned it down. "I trained those boys, and I am going to be with them in battle" he said to explain why he didn't want the promotion. Sergeant Strank died in the act of leading his men as he was hit by an incoming mortar while drawing out a plan of attack in the sands of Iwo Jima.
Harlon Block was second in command to Sergeant Strank, and he took charge of the unit following Mike's death. He lead the unit for a few hours until he was killed by a mortar blast. He was not originally recognized as one of the flag raisers in the photograph, but his mother insisted that he was there. "I know my boy," she said despite the fact that the Government had misidentified the individual in the picture, and she was right. After returning home from the war, Ira Hayes hitchhiked 1,300 miles to the Block farm in Weslaco Texas to tell his family that it was indeed Harlon who was in the photograph. It was thanks to the efforts of Ira and Harlon's mother that the Government eventually corrected their mistake and recognized Harlon Block as one of the flag raisers on Mt. Suribachi.
Franklin Sousley, another of the flag raisers, spent his 18th birthday sailing to the island of Iwo Jima. He would not make it out of there alive. In a letter to his mother, he wrote the following. "My regiment took the hill with our company on the front line. The hill was hard, and I sure never expected war to be like it was those first 4 days. Mother, you can never imagine how a battlefield looks. It sure looks horrible. Look for my picture because I helped put up the flag. Please don't worry and write." When word reached his mother of his death, the neighbors heard her screams across the farm fields of Kentucky.
Rene Gagnon and John Bradley also helped to raise the flag over Iwo Jima. They both survived to return home. Bradley gave just one interview in his life, in which he said the following.
"People refer to us as heroes--I personally don't look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there--and we certainly weren't heroes--and I speak for the rest of them as well. That's the way they thought of themselves also."
And then there was the Indian, Ira Hayes. Ira was a Pima Indian from Arizona, the son of farmers. Ira joined the Marines in 1942, and went on to become a paratrooper earning him the name "Chief Falling Cloud." The parachute units were disbanded in 1944, and Ira transferred to Company E of 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. It was this transfer that would ultimately mark his place in Iwo Jima and seal his place in Marine Corps lore.
After the war, Ira returned home and was given a cushy job with the Finance Division of the U.S. Treasury Department where he and others who took part in the raising helped to sell war bonds by making appearances. He tried to return to a normal life, but he was constantly bombarded with letters and visitors to the Reservation where he lived from people wanting to know if he was "the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima."
Hayes went on to appear in a couple of movies about the events in the South Pacific, but he did not adjust well to civilian life. He was arrested 52 times for public drunkenness, and he spoke of these issues reflecting the sentiments of John Bradley.
"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."
On the morning of January 24th, 1955 Ira Hayes was found dead in a ditch near an abandoned hut in Sacaton Arizona. He was lying in his own blood and vomit, and the Pinal County Coroner findings stated that he died of alcohol poisoning and exposure. His untimely death was immortalized in the lyrics of The Ballad of Ira Hayes.
He died drunk one mornin' Alone in the land he fought to save Two inches of water in a lonely ditch Was a grave for Ira Hayes
Call him drunken Ira Hayes He won't answer anymore Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian Nor the Marine that went to war
Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes But his land is just as dry And his ghost is lyin' thirsty In the ditch where Ira died
While Ira Hayes never thought of himself as a hero, I would beg to differ. You see, Ira fought for a Country that had not always treated him and his people well. He lived on a piece of land that was fenced off and given back to his people as a peace offering after the whole lot had been taken from them. Yet he was a man who was capable of seeing the big picture. At his funeral, Rene Gagnon said...
"Let's say he had a little dream in his heart that someday the Indian would be like the white man — be able to walk all over the United States."
Ira Hayes is a perfect picture of the spirit that drives the Marine Corps. Despite all of the imperfections of the individual, Marines strive for perfection as a whole. Indeed, Ira is a picture of what makes America so great. Too often for political purposes, people try to over-expose or to hide the sins of our past. Yes, our Nation has it's flaws, but without them we could never have our greatness. Nowhere is this more evidence than in the words of one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. Listed as our rights are "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The original intent of listing property was forgone to ensure that the then current sin of slavery would not be enshrined into the laws of our Nation as a right. It is in this seemingly small and subtle change of history that our greatness is seen. America is a Country that recognizes it's flaws, yet reserves the right and the expectation of a better tomorrow. This is the very essence of our exceptionalism. And this is a picture of Ira Hayes.
From an obscure Indian Reservation in Arizona came a flawed man who dreamed of something bigger and better. A man whose dreams took him to the heights of Mt. Suribachi and into American and Marine Corps history. On this Memorial Day, let us not forget the hell that Ira rose from in triumph, nor the men who succumbed to that fighting. In honoring the 250 men who went up that hill, we must also serve the 27 men who came back down. Take a moment from your day of celebrations to reach out to those who have served. When you see the Iwo Jima Monument and remember the heights of their accomplishments, try to remember the ditch where Ira died. From the sadness of his passing, let's strive for a better Country where are veterans are not left to drown the memories of the horrors of what they have seen in alcoholism and drug abuse. We have come a long way on this, but we have further still to go.
Thank you to those serving our Country in the military. And especially, thank you to Ira Hayes and "his good buddies." Today we honor and remember you. Semper Fi.