A Reluctant Hero

(photo: wtv-zone.com)
(photo: wtv-zone.com)

By: Wayne Brown

In Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C., there is a grave in Section 34, Plot 479A, of a young, Marine Corp Corporal. Here you will find the headstone and grave of an “Honorable Warrior” who fought in four major battles in the WWII Pacific combat theater with the U.S. Marine Corps, first serving as a paratrooper, then as an infantry rifleman. His service included the battles for Vella Lavella, Bougainville, The Northern Solomons Consolidation, and Iwo Jima. Here you will find a last tribute to a reluctant war hero, here you will find the grave of Native American, Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian.

Ira Hayes had no plan to achieve the fame assigned to him as one of the American soldiers caught in the act of hoisting the American flag over Mount Seribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. Ira longed for nothing more than an improvement in the respect and welfare of his people and the recognition of his fallen Marine comrades as true war heroes. At 32 years of age, he tragically died never having seen either of those wishes fulfilled in his short life span. From Ira’s perspective, his fame meant little when he was so powerless to accomplish his wishes. From Ira’s perspective, he had failed his people and he had failed his dead comrades. From Ira’s perspective, there was nothing associated with the term ‘hero’ that he would have used to describe himself.

Ira Hayes was born a member of the Pima Indian Tribe, a band of Native American Indians who resided in the confines of the Gila Bend Indian Reservation located in central Arizona, southwest of the Phoenix. The Pima Tribe successfully farmed the Arizona desert lands of the reservation for many generations using water for irrigation from the surrounding rivers and streams. Over the years, especially during the decades of the early 1900’s, more and more water sources were dried up or diverted to feed the needs of nearby settlements. By the time of Ira’s birth, the Pima Indians were a struggling, shrinking band deprived of the precious water needed to raise crops, feed them, and sustain their independence. Ira was born on January 12, 1923, into a life of abject poverty, and into a family that had little but the lore of their tribe to share. Ira would survive along with his family under these dire conditions through childhood and into manhood seldom ever venturing very far from the confines of the reservation. For all their woes, the Pima sustained their proud mindset and also their love of the land. Ira was immersed in this lore and these values that would shape much of his sense of duty and honor throughout his life. Ironically, these values would also drive the destruction that gnawed at his very soul.

Maybe it was fate that placed Ira Hayes on the top of Mount Seribachi, on the Island of Iwo Jima, that particular morning when a war correspondent captured on film a group of six soldiers raising the American flag. As the story goes, it was not the first flag raised over the island; it was actually the second, but it was larger and more easily seen by all of the Marines who were on the island. Neither event, either the first or second raising of the flag, was a ceremonious process and would have passed unnoticed had a chance photo by a war correspondent not recorded the now famed picture of six American soldiers raising Old Glory over the island. That photo in that moment would change the course of young Marine, Ira Hayes’ life forever.

Ira came away from Iwo Jima unscathed physically but emotionally scarred by the loss of so many of his comrade-in-arms in battle. Many of his friends had perished in the fighting that continued on Iwo Jima for a considerable time after the six soldiers raised the flag. In fact, three of the six would die in combat within days of the flag-raising. The remaining three, including Ira, would return to the USA only to realize the photo had made them ‘heroes’ in the eyes of the American public. They were ‘heroes’ who the government had every intention of parading through a 32 city tour before the public to raise bond sales to cover the cost of the war. Although Ira really wanted no part of the tour, he was a Marine and he would follow his orders like any good soldier.

Ira did not wear the moniker of ‘hero’ well from the very start. He considered the heroes to be all his fallen comrades who had their lives snuffed out in the battle to capture Iwo Jima. In Ira’s Marine platoon of 45 men, only five survived the island assault. In his Marine Company of 250 men, only 28 survived the action. Ira was alive and back home being hailed as a hero and he did not know why. As a soldier, he had tried to serve in a way so as to make his family and his people proud but he saw nothing about that which was heroic. Nor did he see the heroic nature associated with raising a flag. Ira failed to realize that the photo had made him a symbol of heroism. Ira’s image would become one of the faces symbolic to the American public of the heroism of the American soldier. There is no evidence that Ira ever saw himself from that perspective. Had Ira gained that awareness, possibly the hero moniker might have been easier to bear. Without that awareness, he was immersed in the guilt of his own survival over his comrades.

Like a good soldier, Ira toured around the country with his two flag-raising comrades. At each stop, there was ceremony and celebration, hand-shaking, pictures to be made and autographs to be signed. A drink was never far from Ira’s reach and the alcohol helped him salve the guilt and hypocrisy that welled up inside him as he enjoyed the best that America had to offer while his people were starving on the reservation down in Arizona; while comrades lay dead in their graves. If this was what it felt like to be a hero, Ira wanted another drink and then another, and then another until he did not feel or remember much of anything anymore.

Eventually the tour did end, but, for Ira, the damage had been done. He would never be quite the same. He seemed to have lost himself both as a proud Native American and as a Marine who had served his country honorably. He seemed to have lost sight of the fact that he had been an “Honorable Warrior”. The war was over; the bonds were sold, the tour was done. Basically, the government was done with Ira and he was free to return to his people and the dire poverty of reservation life. Ira had come full circle and was standing back where he had started before the war, only now he was a ‘war hero’. War hero or freak, Ira was not sure. Tourists seemed to find their way to the reservation to inquire if he was that ‘Indian who had raised the flag’? They came to see the freak, possibly? Ira just wanted all of it to go away…the tourist, the questions, the guilt, the memories…just go away. Alcohol, in sufficient quantity, could grant those wishes, but only temporarily at best.

Ira had returned to his people and the Arizona reservation with his emotions tucked deep inside. It was a rare occasion that he would speak of the flag-raising. He was more likely to speak of his fallen comrades, their service, and how proud he had been to serve in the Marine Corps. When he did speak of the flag-raising, it was likely to be at a point when he was far too deep in the bottle to ever remember it the next day. Public drunkenness was habitual with Ira being arrest more than 50 times in this condition. He worked at various menial jobs around the reservation but his stint as a soldier stands as the only time in his life that he was focused on a singular task for any length of time.

Ira did return briefly to the public eye when he and his two flag-raising comrades appeared as themselves with John Wayne in the movie, “Sands Of Iwo Jima”. He quickly returned to his seclusion and the comfort of the bottle. He remained in this obscurity gaining more fame as a drunk than as a hero. He reluctantly made his last public appearance when he was asked to go to Washington D.C. for the formal dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial in 1954. Hayes suffered through the event as President Dwight Eisenhower, in the dedication speech, referred to the three surviving flag-raisers as heroes. Ira could only wait for a return to a drunken autonomy on his reservation.

On January 24, 1955, Ira Hayes was found dead. He had spent the night before drinking with friends as they played cards. The night would eventually end on a sour note as a fight broke out between Ira and one of the others and a struggle ensued. Although some suspected foul play, the local coroner ruled that Hayes had died from the combined effects of alcohol and exposure. Ironically, Hayes' lifeless body lay in the irrigation ditch that fed precious water to the Pima Indian crops; a ditch that in years past had been dry too often; a ditch on a piece of ground that Pima Indian, Ira Hayes, was moved to defend through his service in the Marine Corp. Ira Hayes had died like he had so often lived…alone, alone in a land he wanted to think had been saved by the blood of his fallen comrades. Ira Hayes, the “Honorable Warrior” had departed this life where he suffered as a “Reluctant Hero.”

In the aftermath of his death, songwriter, Peter Lafarge would immortalize Hayes in his song, “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” which painted a sad memory of Ira against the backdrop of the Pima Indian Tribe struggles. The chorus registers the sad refrain of Ira’s short 32-year life with the words, “Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer anymore, Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian or the Marine that went to war. Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes, but his land is just as dry, and his ghost is lying thirsty in the ditch where Ira died.” God Bless You, Ira. I hope you found your peace in the hereafter.


<script type="text/javascript">

  var _gaq = _gaq || [];
  _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-30482128-1']);

  (function() {
    var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true;
    ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + '.google-analytics.com/ga.js';
    var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);


More by this Author

Comments 24 comments

Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

Sad story of a conflicted man. Being a 'hero' can be tough. I'm sure many have heard something about him, but you did a nice job of filling in his background in a sympathetic way.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks,Rochelle...I want to paint him not as a hero who failed in his role but as a good man assigned a role he felt inadequate and unworthy to shoulder. I have been touched by this story since the first time I heard the song "Ballad Of Ira Hayes" as sung by Johnny Cash. Thank you for the read and the feeback.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Poverty, alcohol and theft of culture -- the lot of the First Nations People of our continent. May Ira be remembered as both a hero and a casualty.

Stampdad profile image

Stampdad 6 years ago from Calgary, Alberta

I visited his grave at Arlington while I was there. He is both a fascinating man and a tragic study. In Flags of our Fathers the Clint Eastwood movie his is ably played by Adam Beach. Several scenes towards the end depict his guilt at surviving the war while many of his friends died. Although he didn't die in the war, he certainly was a war casualty.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

Yes, he most certainly was a casualty of the war. I hope that he is remembered for his caring concern for his fallen comrades more so than for the haunted man that he was for the remainder of his life. Life consumes some people and rightly so. Thanks. WB

Hi-Jinks profile image

Hi-Jinks 6 years ago from Wisconsin

I read this years ago. I only wish these soldiers would put down in writing their experiences as way to take the burden off of themselves.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

Johnny Cash first aroused my interest in Ira Hayes although there had been a movie with John Wayne, "Sands Of Iwo Jima" in which his name was featured. I think many of these soldiers saw things that they could not bring themselves to relive either in word or in writing. Many just wanted to block it out and move on which obviously did not work. I think Ira had a doubly bad situation in that native americans seem quite proned to alcoholism without any effects of war coming into play...in Ira's case, going there was even easier. Thanks for the read and the comments! WB

saddlerider1 profile image

saddlerider1 6 years ago

It's a very sad account of a man who simply wanted to serve his country. He cared more for his fallen comrades than the glory of raising old glory with the other five.

A man who sadly was sent to his grave with liquor on his breath. It seems that he was used by the media and politicians for their own glory. I pray that he is in a better place with his fallen comrades and that the water is flowing plenty for them all. Great piece Wayne I missed this one...Bravo.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

@saddlerider1...Gee, Ken, I figured you had seen them all by now. Have you read "Clear Lake"...if not, I think you will enjoy that one too. Thanks for those great comments on Ira...he was the relunctant hero. WB

Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

This is a very touching and wonderful tribute to Ira Hayes. I once wrote an article about Ira and it was so heart-wrenching to read his story. He did not ask for fame and glory but certainly deserved it. May he rest in peace.

Thanks, Wayne -- wonderful hub.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

@Phyllis Doyle...I suppose I have been a bit fascinated with Ira Hayes since I first heard Johnny Cash sing the ballad about him. Ira pretty much had a life that was sad on both sides of the war. It was as if he was doomed in some ways. In others, it was more like he elected to wear that yoke. Regardless, he certainly did his share as an American and deserves to be remembered as a hero though it was not his desire. Thanks for the good words! WB

quicklysilver profile image

quicklysilver 6 years ago from wexford, ireland

Beautiful and touching to know about this man. The story and ballad reminds me of so many men who lost their lives fighting for Ireland over the centuries.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas Author

@quicklysilver...I first became aware of Ira Hayes through the song and as time went on I felt the urge to know more. You can read more about him in the book "Flags Of Our Fathers". Here is a man who served his country proudly and in the end really asked for nothing in return except peace of mind. I am really glad you enjoyed his story. WB

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Your title -- with the word HERO caught my eye. My kiddos began a hero project today - and I was disappointed to find no books about Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus, or Sally Ride at the library -- but there were books available on the Jonas Brothers, Lebron James, and Queen Latifah(sp?). We teach the kiddos that hero traits include persistance, patriotism, citizenship, curiosty . . . but who are our role models?? Who are our heroes?

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas Author

You ask a tough question and it is one that varies with the individual and what we have been taught about life. For me, there are very few real heroes. If you look at much of the way Ira Hayes conducted his life, he was not a hero in the sense that he was an example for others to follow. I believe that is true but let's not take away his conduct in battle at a time when it really mattered. Let's not take away the fact that he did everything he could to make sure a mother knew that her son was indeed a hero at Iwo Jima. Ira's weakness and depression came as the result of being a Native American and never feeling that he was good enough. Society rejected him while hypocritically embracing him as a hero. In my mind, with all his personal issues, he is an American Hero. There are a few others but the numbers are small. We want our children to pattern themselve after those who have the traits. Instead, I would suggest that we not worship the person, but focus on the traits they exhibited at the time. In that moment, they were heroes in their own right...not idols, but someone who knew what the right thing to do was in the moment. There are those that I could cite such as Nolan Ryan and Johnny Cash and there are many, many more. In truth, we don't learn of our real heroes because they elect to remain in the background far too often. WB

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

In my rant I forgot to say how much I appreciated your hub. Sorry and thanks. Ira was a hero, and there are many more like him. When we push people to their limits, sometimes a side surfaces that is not pleasant. No ill will towards the personalities I mentioned, but really -- heroes. Not!

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas Author

@Truckstop Sally...sorry, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The people you mention do not even enter the realm of hero and when their name is mentioned as such, it does a disservice to the real heroes of the world. Let's get the terms right, these people at best are fads, temporary idols, etc....just 15 minutes of fame in some ways. There is nothing they have done that is heroic. One might attempt to say that of Nolan Ryan but my premise is this...here is a man that I have no problem allowing a child of mind to be in awe of or to immulate...here is a man who attempted to do his best in life and what could be more heroic? WB

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

You are a faster typist than me! Sorry to respond after you comment. You can tell this is a subject close to my heart. We start our project with hero traits. What trait (adjective) is most important to you? Perseverance? Humor? Resourcefulness? Kindness? Bravery? etc . . . and then we look for people who exhibit(ed) the same. Very cool . . . and actually lots of flying/space exploration including Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, Bessie Coleman . . . Guessing they were they all navigators first?? Ha!!

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Damn! You would make a very good teacher!! That ditch is -- oh so wide!!

I have several Nolan Ryan signed baseballs. Saw him last at Astro's spring training 2 years ago. Baseball is my favorite sport -- America's pasttime. My favorite baseball movie is probably Bull Durham. Yours?

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas Author

Heroism is a lot of things...mostly what is needed in the moment and understanding that fact. Some very ordinary men made instanteous decisions at Normandy that what was needed in the moment was for them to advance all alone on the enemy to take out a machine gun site. They risk their lives in the process in so many ways yet they never stopped to take that into consideration; they only knew that men were dying and something had to be done. They did what they thought could be done and accomplished it. In that sense, many of them do not see themselves as heroes...just folks doing what needed to be done for others to survive. We don't decide to be heroes on our own, we decided to do what we can and what is right...history makes us heroes...whether it be for a life lived or for a moment in time. WB

A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 4 years ago from Texas

A reluctant hero indeed. Shouldering the burden, the expectations of his culture and tribe. Recognized for the menial task of raising a flag, while his fallen comrades got little fanfare. Japanese couldn't kill him, but was felled by firewater. Thank you for sharing.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 4 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks so much, Augustine. I wrote this in my first year here on the hub. I admired the efforts of Ira Hayes even in light of the alcohol. From the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing that song, I felt a kindred spirit with his ghost. Some of us impact the world in this lifetime and some of us impact the word forever...so it is with Ira Hayes. Thanks much! WB

Edward J. Palumbo profile image

Edward J. Palumbo 3 years ago from Tualatin, OR

Survivor guilt is a great burden, and it is difficult to live with ghosts. It was my privilege to be a U.S. Marine and be surrounded by brothers. The history of the Corps in the southwest Pacific was written in blood, but the price for the surviving veterans was (is) a bit difficult to gauge. May Ira Hayes rest in the peace he wanted and may he pass in review before Almighty God with those who've gone before and after him.

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 3 years ago from Texas Author

@Edward J. Palumbo...You are right on point in what you say here. Too often, we focus so much on the fact that young men and women come home from war alive and with their limbs intact and turn a blind eye to the horrors they have witnessed and must live with the rest of their lives. Marines are very special in that sense of reaching out to each other and continuing the bonds long after the uniform is folded and put away. Surely that is the reason for the saying, "Once a Marine, always a Marine. God Bless you Sir! ~WB

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article