I guess most everyone over the age of 40 has seen, at one time or another, the iconic photograph of the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi over the island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. It was taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and won the Pulitzer Prize for photography. It became known in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable photographs of World War II. But do you know the story behind the photo?

It was actually the second raising of a flag. The first one was a small flag raised as soon as they secured the mountain. The second one, the one that became famous, was staged about 90 minutes later. The six men in the photograph were simply standing around and ordered to go raise the flag for the photo. Three of the soldiers, Sargeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley never left the island. They were killed in action a few days later.

The three surviving flag raisers, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, returned to the United States and became national heroes. Their story is told in the book, Flags of our Fathers, written by John Bradley’s son, James Bradley. It was also made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood in 2006.

Sounds like a great story. It wasn’t. Gagnon, Hayes, and Bradley were sent home to capitalize on the photograph’s fame and sell war bonds. Hayes and Bradley weren’t happy about being used. Like most veterans, Ira Hayes never considered himself a hero. The heroes were the ones who never left Iwo Jima alive. At a White House reception, President  Truman praised Hayes and told him, “You’re a hero.” Hayes responded, with a tear in his eye, “How can I feel like a hero when 250  of my buddies hit the island with me and only 27 of us walked off alive?” President Truman had no answer for him.

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian, born on the reservation near Chandler, Arizona. He was never comfortable with the accolades that came with the famous photograph. He would be the first to tell you that war should never be glorified. He had survivor’s guilt and was never able to come to grips with the guilt in his mind of so many lost friends. He turned to alcohol and was arrested over 50 times for public drunkenness during the next 10 years. On November 10, 1954, he attended the Marine Corps Memorial dedication in Washington. President Eisenhower told him he was a hero. A reporter asked Hayes, “How do you like the pomp and circumstance?” Hayes just hung his head, and again with a tear in his eye, responded, “I don’t.”

His war may have ended in 1945 but his battles continued until one cold morning in January of 1954. On that morning Ira Hayes was found dead on the ground behind a barn on the reservation.  He had died drunk, 32 years old, a very unglorified ending to a faithful soldier.  He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

It is Veterans Day, 2019. Words always seem so inadequate in expressing thanks to our veterans. How do you thank people like Ira Hayes? I don’t have the answer. For his service to our country he died drunk and alone. He was thanked over and over but it wasn’t enough. He could never get over the loss of his friends. For most veterans,  even when the war is over the battles continue. God bless our veterans. Their tears still flow, and our flag still waves.

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