Yet, Arizona’s the most famous soldier was born on the Gila River Indian Reservation town of Sacaton, a short 57 miles south of Anthem. He grew up the son of a farming family who struggled to coax enough crops from the desert soil in order to live. When American once again found itself engaged in the great World War II, this Arizona son, this Ira Hayes, volunteered and became a United States Marine.
As Ira left his Arizona home, his tribal leaders told him to be an Honorable Warrior and to bring honor upon his people. Ira never forgot those words and through three major battles in the Pacific, he never failed in service or in honor.
It was in that third battle, a place called Iwo Jima, that this Arizona soldier would forever become a symbol of America. On February 23, 1945, the fourth day of the battle that United States Marines fought their way to the highest ground of that island, a hill called Mount Suribachi. Around 12 noon, 6 marines, including Arizona’s Ira Hayes, raised the American flag for all on the island to see. Photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the most famous picture of World War II and maybe in all of American history.
The fight for Iwo Jima would continue for another 31 days, until March 26, 1945. Over 6,800 United States Marines died on that volcanic, Pacific island. Of the six marines who raised that grand ol’ flag, only 3 came off the island alive. One of those three was Ira Hayes.
The three surviving flag raisers became instant heroes in America once the picture of the flag raising ran in American newspapers. The three were ordered to leave their fellow marines still fighting in the Pacific and return to the United States. There they would become a part in selling War Bonds. For Ira Hayes the idea of being called a hero did not sit well, for he believed the true heroes were those so many killed on the islands of the Pacific.
Ira Hayes was “wined and dined” across America. Too many people wanted to celebrate with him by buying him another drink. He became dependent on alcohol and became a drifter and a loner.
In 1954, Ira Hayes was the guest of honor at the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C. He was asked how he liked all the pomp and glory. He replied, “I don’t!”
On January 24, 1955, Ira Hayes, an Honorable Pima Warrior and a United States Marine, fell drunk into a reservation irrigation ditch and died. For this Arizona soldier, his life story was now complete.
Yet today, in that small Arizona town of Sacaton, Arizona, one can visit the Ira Hayes Memorial Park. It is not so much in the way that modern Arizonans might measure a park, but it is truly a park that is named after a real American soldier and a real American hero.
So on this Memorial Day 2006, if you are looking for something a little different and special to do, drive on down to Sacaton with a lunch and spend a little time at a park named for Ira Hayes. And, when you look at the plaque of that famous picture, of those six marines raising that flag, look at the marine to the far left, the one whose hands have already let go of the pole. For, you see, that soldier was and always will be the Arizona Honorable Warrior and United States Marine, Ira Hayes.