New Alpha Unit. I heard a radio show on this Indian just recently. It sure is a sad story, and it shows that fame often whacks people out as often as it helps them.
Within the Gila River Indian Reservation just south of Phoenix lies the Sierra Estrella mountain range. One of its major peaks is named after a young man who served as a Marine in World War II.
He didn’t die in the war, though. That he survived. He died nearly ten years after the war, of exposure, after falling drunk, some say in a creek and others say in an irrigation ditch.
Drunk was a normal state for him after the war. He had been arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct numerous times since coming home. Supposedly the drinking began not long after he became the returning hero and the preferred honor bestowed upon him was to buy him a drink.
He had been one of only 27 of his company of 250 to survive the battle that took place for Iwo Jima. He couldn’t get his fallen comrades out of his mind. He had been one of the five men photographed raising the flag on Mount Suribachi – he’s on the far left – and he never liked being lauded as a hero.
Not only that, but his real homecoming was not that glorious. The federal government had decades earlier cut off the major water supply to the Pima Indians, depriving them of the farming way of life they had practiced for generations. Starvation was fended off only by government rations.
This is what the young Marine came home to. Uncle Sam was not going to restore water to his people just because they had a war hero in their midst.
It wasn’t a good life.
There are memorials to Ira Hayes besides that mountain peak near Phoenix. There was even a song written about him; Johnny Cash recorded the most famous version. The thing is, Ira Hayes didn’t like all the fame and accolades his war experiences had brought him. They were a source of grief to him.
He had seen, like so many others returning from war, into the heart of his country, past all the pomp and circumstance. One of the things America had found so appealing about his story was that he was an Indian. But what his people were dealing with wasn’t very appealing at all.
- Wagner, Dennis. December 8, 2009. Death Mask of WWII Hero Finally Buried (AP). The Gallup Independent.
Archibold, Randal C. August 30, 2008. Indians’ Water Rights Give Hope for Better Health. The New York Times.