The Native American Behind This Iconic Photograph

by Andy Hart
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It All Started Back In World War 2

Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii sending much of the United States’ military into panic. This move by Japan intended to be a distraction for another military move they had planned in a different region not understanding the full scale of America’s willingness to test it’s nuclear weapons which ended up destroying most of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just before the bombs dropped, the battle inside and outside of Iwo Jima took place (February 19-March 26, 1945).

Ira Hayes Pointing To His Photograph From Iwo Jima
Ira Hayes Pointing To His Photograph From Iwo Jima

On February 23, 1945 several marines raised the US Flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima and got captured for an eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. The pictured captured a moment of solitude, respect and pride in a country becoming quickly fatigued by the struggles that came with the second world war. More than 22,000 Japanese soldiers fought tirelessly & ambushed the 70,000 American troops who were heavily armed with tanks, mines, grenades, bombs and bullets.

The struggle lasted longer than a month and only half of the six men in the photo survived the war. One of those survivors was an indigenous Pima soldier from the Arizona Gila River community named Ira Hayes. Hayes enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve on August 26, 1942 and later volunteered to become a Paramarine where we then fought in the Bougainville and Iwo Jima campaigns. American soldiers were victorious when the war was finished, but the stories and memories those soldiers carried with them all the way home was a burden many had to struggle with for a lifetime.

What happened to Ira Hayes?

Ira Hayes returned home after witnessing many casualties and after experiencing many traumas during war and was overcome with immense stress and anxiety. Hayes was considered an exemplary for quite a while and many considered him to be a brave role model for the Gila River community. He inherited a spokesman role and was sent to Washington DC to represent his entire people. He was repeatedly commemorated for his bravery and hailed as an American hero, a title he didn’t feel he deserved.

Statue Of Iwo Jima with Ira Hayes, John Bradley and President Nixon (AP Photo)
Statue Of Iwo Jima with Ira Hayes, John Bradley and President Nixon (AP Photo)

He tried to live a normal civilian life but would be bombarded with hundreds of letters from people across the country supporting his patriotism. This stress and expectation only pushed him into exhaustion never allowing him to fully recover from the past traumas that plagued his mind. Hayes struggled with alcohol addiction later in life and was often upset and argumentative. He, unfortunately, spent his final hours in a drunken stupor once his colleagues had left him after an altercation near his home and had passed away from exposure to the freezing temperatures and alcohol poisoning.

His grim story left an impression on those around the world sparking Hollywood films, stories and songs. It’s no wonder so many can relate to his struggles and his angst even decades later as our country often finds itself in battles overseas and constantly overlooks the treatment of the psychological trauma experienced by our soldiers, veterans and civilians.

Is it common for Native Americans to be enlisted in the military?

Native Americans are actually one of the most actively enlisted ethnicity groups in the United States. In 1942 at least 99% of all eligible native men applied to be drafted in the war which is more than any other ethnicity group. The majority of Native Americans opted to join the Navy with 30% of them choosing that service over any other group.

During World War 2 there was also an interesting approach used by several talented Navajo military soldiers who were called the Navajo Code Talkers. This group of men was selected for their bilingual ability and the military had them come up with a unique code that couldn’t be easily decoded by their enemies. Their coding method proved to be incredibly successful making indigenous soldiers a valuable asset for the military in many ways and even allowed the United States to win the war.

Navajo Code Talkers

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Post Author: Andy Hart

─ He's an activist, lone wolf and freelance graphic designer from California who writes and shares progressive, positive, truthful and inspiring information. Follow Me On Facebook
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