Born in January 1923, Ira Hamilton Hayes hailed from a Pima Indian family on the Gila River Reservation near Sacaton, Ariz., as the eldest of six children. Hayes’ father was a WWI Veteran who supported his family through sustenance farming and cotton harvesting.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Hayes enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942. After completing recruit training in San Diego, Calif., Hayes volunteered for Marine paratrooper training at Camp Gillespie near San Diego. On Nov. 30, Hayes graduated from the Parachute Training School and earned his silver wings—as well as a nickname: Chief Falling Cloud. Promoted to private first class, he joined Company B, 3rd Parachute Battalion, Divisional Special Troops, 3rd Marine Division at Camp Elliott, California.
In March 1943, Hayes sailed for New Caledonia, spending 11 months in the Pacific and serving in battles at Vella Lavella Island and Bougainville Island. He eventually returned to San Diego in February 1944. The parachute units disbanded around the same time, and Hayes transferred to the 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California.
Later that year, Hayes moved to Hawaii for further training. In January 1945, he left for Iwo Jima along with 70,000 other Marines. The U.S. pushed forward toward the Japanese mainland.
It was at Iwo Jima that Hayes’ name and image became immortalized forever. Of the 70,000 men sent to capture the rocky outpost in the Pacific, 23,000 died trying.
On Feb. 23, 1945, to signal the end of Japanese control, Hayes and five other sailors raised the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribuchi on the island of Iwo Jima. Hayes fought on the island until it was secure on March 26. Hayes’ division had many casualties. He was one of five Marines remaining from his platoon of 45 men, including their corpsmen.
Joe Rosenthal’s Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima became a symbol of the American victory in World War II. The two surviving flag raisers, Hayes and Gagnon, became national heroes. After the war, Hayes made numerous public appearances and was lauded by the public for his service. Despite the accolades, Hayes never felt at ease in the spotlight and felt that he shouldn’t be placed above his fallen comrades.
In November 1954, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial was unveiled at a dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C. President Dwight Eisenhower praised the Pima Marine as “a national war hero.” Just 10 weeks later, Hayes died near his home in Sacaton, Ariz. He was 32.
Ira Hayes was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, finally at peace and reunited with many of his fallen brothers.
We honor your service, Ira Hayes.
Editor: Michelle Cannon
Fact Checker: Shweta Rao
Graphics: Jessica Hunsinger