Ira Hayes: What happened to the Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima

“There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again. And when the fight was overAnd when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high, Was the Indian, Ira Hayes

Johny Cash, “The Balad of Ira Hayes”

Fear, without a doubt, is everyone’s inner struggle. When confronted and an ordinary human stands up, rises against the odds and faces the challenge, this ordinary man becomes a hero. For “being terrified but going ahead and doing what must be done―that’s courage” (Piers Anthony, Castle Roogna), and heroes are nothing other than ordinary people who by acting in the heat of the moment can make themselves extraordinary.

One of the greatest acts of heroism was performed by the simplest of men. Ira Hayes, an introspective 22-year-old Native America from the Pima tribe and a U.S. Marine, on February 23, 1945, in the midst of the Battle of Iwo Jima, was one of the patriot soldiers who raised the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi while the war still raged on the volcanic rock. The image captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal became an iconic one, earning him a Pulitzer Prize. As for the story of the heroic Marine, his ended up being one of the saddest stories.

Hayes was depicted on the Iwo Jima Memorial as one of six men raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. Author: Xephrail CC BY-SA 3.0

First and foremost, when deciding to write the story of Ira Hayes, one couldn’t find a better way to do it than to begin by quoting Johnny Cash, a brilliant soul who managed to sum up a story so poignantly: “The Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.”

Born on January 12, 1923, to a World War I veteran and a Presbyterian school teacher in Sacaton, Arizona, the capital and the very heart of the Gila River Indian Reservation, Ira Hayes was the oldest of six children. He was a quiet and withdrawn boy with an excellent understanding of the English language even when very young. His devoted mother a full member of the Pima tribe, aspired for her children to be literate and educated members of this new world which they were now unwillingly a part of, and made sure this was the case.

In 1932, Ira and his family were forced out of their home–“The white man’s greed,” sang Johnny Cash–and relocated 12 miles northwest to Bapchule, where Ira continued his education at the Phoenix Indian School. Still the same shy Pima boy, he was an excellent student. Former classmates would say, “Ira wasn’t like the other guys. He was shy and never talked to us girls” and his family would describe him as “quiet, and somewhat distant.” He was a type of person who seemed to be immersed deep in his own thoughts, one who wouldn’t speak unless he is spoken to.

But when he did speak it was of was his determination to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. He felt it was his duty to assist his homeland and fellowmen in dire need following Japan’s shocking military strike on Pearl Harbor. He joined the Marines on August 26, 1942. He was 19 years old and ready to prove his worth.

November 10, 1942: Hayes at age 19, in his service uniform appearing ready to jump, at Camp Gillespie, Marine Corps Parachute School

The shy boy rose to the challenge and endured the rigorous military discipline. Not just that, he volunteered to be a “paramarine,” a paratrooper. In no time he came to be known amid the unit as “Chief Falling Cloud” and a respected Private First Class among his soon to be brothers in arms at the Parachute Marine Training School at Camp Gillespie in San Diego. He was called into action and along with the silver “jump wings” attached to his uniform was shipped to the South Pacific in Noumea, New Caledonia, as a fully trained parachutist and distinguished member of the Marine Corps.

From then on he was shifted back and forth from the Guadalcanal and San Diego in what were two major battles for him and his fellow soldiers that lasted for 11 months up until February 19, 1945, when every surviving man deemed ready for battle was dropped on the southern side of Iwo Jima. They were to join a large contingent of approximately 70,000 Marines that landed on the island earlier that morning, in “Operation Detachment.” It was a last man standing effort to capture a strategic point near Japan’s mainland.

The volcanic island of 21 square miles was one of the strongest military strongholds for Japan and the Allies wanted to prevent them from using it. Furthermore, they saw it as the best possible rallying spot from where they could advance their invasion of Japan’s mainland.