As Marine Private Ira Hayes, a 22-year-old Pima Indian from Arizona, he survived the bloody battle to take the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese at the height of the South Pacific fighting during World War II and was one of six members of America's fighting forces captured in the iconic flag-raising image by photographer Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945.
Yet, moments after he was cited as a true American hero by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the dedication of the Iwo Jima monument in Washington, D.C., in 1954 and was asked by a reporter "How do you like the big celebration?," Hayes just hung his head and quietly replied, "I don't."
Hayes was more than a reluctant hero. Within three months, he was dead, an apparent victim of unsought celebrity. Of the six Americans forever captured by Rosenthal's lens, he was the fourth to die. Three of them never made it off the island alive.
Hayes didn't have to be there at all.
The eldest of six children born to a World War I veteran subsistence farmer and devoutly religious mother in Arizona's Gila River Indian Community, Ira Hamilton Hayes was a quiet yet precocious child, learning to read and write English before age four. Hayes attended high school for just two years and worked as a carpenter and spent some time with the Civilian Conservation Corps before enlisting in the Marine Corps following the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.
Hayes qualified as a parachutist and spent 11 months in combat in the South Pacific, earning the nickname of Chief Falling Cloud. After the parachute unit was disbanded in early 1944, Hayes signed on for another tour of duty and headed back to the South Pacific in September 1944.
On February 19, 1945, Hayes and others in the 5th Marine Division began their assault on Iwo Jima. Four days later, he was in the group that headed up Mt. Suribachi to plant the flag that has become such an American icon. That event did not stop the fighting that would claim half of the flag-planting crew.
Pennsylvanian Mike Strank was the first to die. It was Strank who led the five Marines and one Navy corpsman to the top of Mt. Suribachi to replace the first flag planted by U.S. forces with a larger one so "every Marine on this cruddy island can see it." On March 1, Sgt. Strank was killed by a mortar round as he was diagramming a battle plan in the sand.
Strank's second in command, Harlon Henry Block, a former high school football star from South Texas, briefly took over leadership of the unit but he, too, was struck down by a mortar blast just hours after Strank.
Franklin Sousley, a 19-year-old from Kentucky, was the third of the unit to die on Iwo Jima when he succumbed to combat injuries on March 21. By the time Iwo Jima was won, more than 6,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese were dead.
The three surviving members of the flag-raising unit - Hayes, fellow Marine Rene Gagnon and Navy Pharmacist's Mate John Bradley - were summoned back to the states in April where they were temporarily assigned to duties connected to the Seventh War Bond Drive.
They met with President Truman before beginning a 32-city tour where they were presented to the public as heroes in an effort to spur war bond sales. Hayes was not comfortable with his new role.
"How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived?" he later lamented to a reporter. "Everywhere we went people shoved drinks in our hands and said 'You're a hero!' We knew we hadn't done that much but you couldn't tell them that."
Even after his honorable discharge in November 1945, Hayes could not escape his fame. In 1949, he, Gagnon and Bradley played themselves in the John Wayne movie, Sands of Iwo Jima. Hayes returned to his hometown in Arizona, but never fulfilled the promise he had shown as a youngster.
Suffering from what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder, Hayes turned to the bottle and was frequently in trouble with the law. He was arrested as many as 50 times on drinking-related charges. On Jan. 24, 1955, after Hayes was involved in a scuffle during a card game, Hayes was found dead near his home. He was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Hayes' story was documented in the 1961 film, The Outsider, with Tony Curtis portraying Hayes. His story was also popularized in the song, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, a big hit for Johnny Cash in 1964. The song was written by Peter LaFarge, a Native American of Pima heritage and military veteran of the Korean war. LeFarge also died young, at age 33 on Oct. 27, 1964. The cause of death is listed as a stroke but many friends believe it was a suicide.
The historic flag that was raised on Mt. Suribachi in 1945, was placed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Filmmaker Clint Eastwood told the story of the battle for Iwo Jima in two 2006 films - Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Both received Oscar nominations.
Photographer Joe Rosenthal died in 2006 at the age of 94; Rene Gagnon died in Manchester, N.H., on October 12, 1979, at age 54 and John Bradley died in Antigo, Wisconsin, on Jan. 11, 1994, at age 70.
Ira Hamilton Hayes
Born: January 12, 1923, Sacaton, Arizona
Died: January 24, 1955, Bapchule, Arizona (age 32)
Here is a 3-minute mini-documentary about the flag-raising:
Here is my favorite version of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," by Kris Kristofferson: