One of the six Marines shown in the famous photo of raising the flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima was PFC Ira Hayes. 19 years old at the time, Hayes, a member of the Gila River Indian community, enlisted in the Marines 8 months after Pearl Harbor and volunteered to become a Paramarine.
Hayes first fought in the Bougainville Campaign in the Solomon Islands with the 3rd Marines. They faced heavy fighting with Japanese fire coming from concealed fortifications and snipers hidden in the trees. Hayes saw fellow Marines die in battle and succumb to malaria. But that battle would pale in comparison to Iwo Jima.
Hayes was transferred to the newly-activated 5th Marine Division and trained for 5 months for the invasion of Iwo Jima. When they landed in February, 1945, they were met by 20,000 Japanese defenders who were well entrenched and ready to fight to the death. The Marines obliged them; at the end of the battle, only 1% of the Japanese defenders remained.
But Marine casualties were also heavy. They came under heavy fire from Japanese pillboxes and underground bunkers, as well as from Japanese artillery firing from the mountain top. Hayes was one of only 3 survivors from those who raised that flag. Iwo Jima was by far the highest single-action casualty loss in Marine history. One in three died in that battle.
PFC Hayes’ life after the war was complicated. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat “V”. He received hundreds of letters, and people would visit his Reservation to ask, “are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima?”
Hayes appeared as himself with John Wayne in the movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima.” But when he hitchhiked across the country to visit one of his buddies in South Dakota, Jack Thurman, Thurman’s mother made him wait at the end of the driveway because he was an Indian.
Hayes struggled with alcoholism after the war. Referring to his alcoholism, he once said: “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.” Hayes met President Dwight D. Eisenhower who lauded him as a hero. A reporter there approached Hayes and asked him, “How do you like the pomp and circumstance?” Hayes hung his head and said, “I don’t.”
Image credit: Arizona State Libraries Archive