The name is widely recognized. There are books, movies and even songs, including Johnny Cash’s hit, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” His image, as one of six U.S. Marines photographed raising the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi near the end of World War II has been reproduced millions of times. He was hailed as a hero.
Ira Hamilton Hayes was born in Sacaton, Arizona on January 12, 1923 on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Ira was a Pima, the son of Nancy and Jobe Hayes.
Nine months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Ira enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was 19. Before he left, his community held a traditional Pima ceremony for him. His parents wanted him to remain home, but he wanted to go, wanted to help defend the U.S. and protect his family.
He was proud to be a Marine and retained that pride throughout his life.
After completing boot camp he was accepted into parachute training, something reserved for only the best young Marines. He was proud to be the first Pima to receive Marine Paratrooper wings. His fellow Marines nicknamed him Chief Falling Cloud.
His first combat action was on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. He was sharing a foxhole with another Marine. During the night a Japanese soldier crept to the foxhole and jumped in, hoping to kill them, but Hayes killed the attacker with his bayonet.
Hayes next reported to Camp Pendleton from combat at Bougainville for a 30-day furlough, during which he returned to the reservation. After spending six months at Pendleton, Hayes, along with 21,000 others became “an elite, interdependent martial society that would be moved intact across an ocean to fight an island battle,” according to Flags of Our Fathers. He was then assigned to Easy Company, which consisted of about 250 men and was part of the 2nd Battalion of the Marine’s 5th Division. The whole fighting force was given the nickname Spearhead. Easy Company left San Diego September 19, 1944 and spent four months in Honolulu honing their skills before leaving in January 1945 on the USS Missoula. Two days later they learned their destination was Iwo Jima, a sulfur-laden speck of an island with a volcano on one end called Mount Suribachi. It was Japanese homeland, just 650 miles from Tokyo, and critical in the war of the Pacific because it had two airstrips Japanese fighter planes were using to attack U.S. bombers passing to and from Japan.
On the fourth day of horrific fighting on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, four Marines reached the top of Mount Suribachi; later that same day a larger group returned and erected a U.S. flag around noon. Later that afternoon, it was replaced with a larger flag. Hayes was one of the Marines raising that larger flag.
A month later, President Roosevelt ordered that the men in Rosenthal’s photo immediately be returned to the U.S. and tour the country as, he said, “immortal heroes” to inspire all Americans. Hayes had not yet been identified in the photo, and he tried to hide his identity, not wanting to leave his buddies, who were still in the midst of a bloody battle. (Eighty-four percent of Easy Company were casualties at Iwo Jima.) After about a week he was identified and sent home, along with the other two flag-raisers still alive. He reached the U.S. on April 19.
On their first official day as “immortal heroes” the soldiers went to the Oval Office to meet with President Truman (FDR had died on April 12), then to the Senate Chambers. Next they attending the Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees, where they were cheered by the crowd. At first, Hayes enjoyed the attention, the lavish meals, meeting celebrities including the president, but that soon wore off.
He had started drinking during his time in the Marines, and the many receptions and late-night events for this “hero tour” gave him too many occasions and reasons to drink more. He was removed from the tour after about two weeks and sent to rejoin Easy Company in Hawaii. Most of the men he had cared about were dead and his drinking continued.
Hayes was discharged on December 1, 1945 after 39 months as a Marine—23 of them in three tours overseas. He returned to the reservation where he did day labor jobs and continued drinking. There was a campaign to help. Elizabeth Martin, former wife of Dean Martin, hired him as a chauffeur, and he lived in her Beverly Hills home for several months but couldn’t stay away from the bottle.
People recognizing him would often ask for stories from the “Iwo Jima hero,” but it wasn’t in his culture to seek recognition, and he hated the phrase. He continued to drink, and arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct mounted. He wasn’t alone with this problem. Many servicemen went through similar tribulations. Today these are recognized symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but little was known of that problem in the 1940s.
Hayes was found dead on January 24, 1955. The coroner’s report said he died of exposure and alcohol poisoning.
A hero’s life was cut short, 10 years after raising the flag over Iwo Jima.