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Letter from Ira Hayes to his Family

Despite participating in one of the most iconic moment of WWII, Ira Hayes is not a name that is known to many people. Hayes was a native American from the Pima tribe, born January 12, 1923 on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona.[1] In August of 1942 he enlisted with the United States Marine Corps and secured a spot in the paratrooper training program straight out of boot camp, an elite honor reserved for the best of the best.[2] After earning his jump wings Hayes was assigned to the 3rd Parachute Battalion of the Special Troops Division.[3] On his first overseas tour Hayes served on the South Pacific islands of Vella Lavella and Bougainville engaged in combat with the Japanese.[4] This was Hayes first real taste of war, and it began to have an effect on him. Described as passive and peaceful by his fellow Marines, the killing and terror Hayes witnessed on those islands would stick with him for the remainder of his life.[5]

When his furlough ended, Hayes was reassigned to Company E of the newly created 5th Division and began more training at Camp Pendleton in California.[6] From California, Hayes and his fellow Marines shipped off to Camp Tarawa in Hawaii to complete even more training for a secretive mission they would be conducting on “Island X”.[7] Little did these men know, they were being sent to Iwo Jima. Unlike fighting in Europe, which involved liberating cities and heroic campaigns, the war in the Pacific was brutal, bloody, and thankless.[8] Iwo Jima was perhaps the bloodiest and most thankless of all the battles fought in WWII. Maps of the island created in aerial fly-overs showed that the beaches were littered with Japanese fortifications.[9] While studying the map for the first time 5th Division Marine Captain Dave Severance felt scared. Reportedly commenting that, “It conjured up images of Civil War battles, row after row of men going up and replacing those who had fallen. I knew we’d get to the top of that mountain, eventually—but how many men was it going to chew up?”[10] Although the answer to Severance’s question wouldn’t come until later, 26,000 American men lost their lives on that island, making Iwo Jima the deadliest battle of World War II.[11]

Strategically, the first part of the mission was to fan out across the narrow neck of Iwo Jima, cut off Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island, and capture it. The mountain was literal high-ground and securing it for the Marines would be a major advantage that the battle’s success hinged on. However, this was easier said than done.[12] When Ira Hayes and his fellow Marines landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945 everything was initially quiet. The Navy had been bombing the island for three days leading up to the Marines disembarking, and there was hope that this battle may be easier than originally anticipated. What these young men did not know was that a huge network of underground tunnels and rooms had been constructed beneath Iwo Jima that hid roughly 22,000 Japanese soldiers just waiting to strike. About an hour after the first Marines arrived on the island, shots rang out and the slaughter began. The horrific chaos that ensued cannot be described in words. There was no place for the troops to take cover and the young men, most of them just teenagers, were picked off like flies.[13]

From the start of the battle, it only took an hour and a half to complete step one of the mission and isolate Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island.[14] However, it would take four more days of hellish fighting to completely secure the mountain and on February 23, 1945 the American flag was raised on top of Mount Suribachi. Contrary to popular belief, the now famous photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima doesn’t depict the first flag raised on the island. According to Sergeant Michael Strank, one of the flag raisers in the photo, the first flag was rather small and after a few more small skirmishes with Japanese, Colonel Chandler Johnson decided that a larger flag was needed so that “every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island [could] see it!”[15]

Ira Hayes was one of six people up on that mountain who helped with the historic raising of the flag, and although the image of that scene has now become a symbol of bravery and patriotism, it probably didn’t feel all that triumphant for the men who were actually there that day. Following the raising of the flag was thirty-one more days of intense combat with the Japanese on the northern side of the island. Mount Suribachi had been secured, but that was really just the first step in conquering Iwo Jima. The fighting that followed was just as bloody and disturbing as it had been on day one, and Ira Hayes bore witness to it all.[16] This letter from the Mercury Collection was written by Ira Hayes to his family in the months after the fateful battle at Iwo Jima. The letter reads:

“Good evening dear folks. I ain’t got anything to do just now so I’m writing to you. I hope you are all O.K. But please do not worry about me I’m all right & can take care of myself in any situation. I pray to God, He is keeping watch over Leonard where ever he is. And to be with him, protect him, comfort him, & watch over him, as He has done for me. I know that Leonard will take God as his Leader & follow him. And he will not be afraid to face the future. I know what kind of a guy Leonard is & know what’s deep in his heart. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this to you, but when I joined the Corps I started to pray, maybe 4 times or 3 times a week. But when I went over the first time I prayed every night, & the second time over here before we went to Iwo I done likewise. On Iwo I was always praying so was many others, some for the first time. My prayers were with me and comforted me, gave me the courage to face the next day. I never ask God to spare my life. I’d say if it is by His will that I see another morning I would be thankful for it. But if it is the other way & God’s will, well I will be ready as I have been ready a long time ago. I never felt His nearness to me as I did on that damn island. Prayers are always heard & I’ll keep on praying as I have never did before. Well folks I don’t know much more to write. Thanks for sending that letter to me. I received my seabag from D.d & everything was in order. I’ll close here till next time.”

This letter truly exemplifies the toll this particular battle took on Hayes. Although he had previously served on the Pacific islands Vella Lavella and Bougainville, neither of them held a candle to the atrocities he witnessed or the constant terror he experienced on Iwo Jima. Despite the fact that post-traumatic stress disorder was not yet known about in 1945, it is very likely that Hayes suffered from it. After the war, he returned home to the reservation in Arizona and worked various jobs as a day-laborer. Most likely looking for an escape from the memories and flashbacks that tormented him, Hayes drank heavily and isolated himself. Hayes’ cousin, Buddy Lewis, described him as a nice guy but said that “he changed when he got drunk. He had a split personality. He was mean when he was drunk. He would laugh, but he went ape-shit over the subject of Iwo Jima. He didn’t want to talk about it.”[17] Arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct piled up, and in January of 1955 Ira Hayes was found dead in a pool of his own vomit and blood at the age of 32. The night before, like so many other nights towards the end of his life, Ira was drinking heavily and passed out outside. He died from overexposure caused by the freezing temperature that night. Two-thousand people attended his funeral, and thousands more came to visit his body in the Arizona Capitol Rotunda, where he remained for a few days following his funeral before being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[18] Without a doubt, Ira Hayes was and still is a hero. He fought valiantly for his country, and was a man of upstanding character and faith. The events at the end of his life reflect the struggles of a man suffering from a debilitating mental burden of which he could find no relief and sadly that struggle cost him his life.

Below is the letter that Ira Hayes wrote to his family that is now part of Mercury One’s collection.

Sources:

[1] “Ira Hamilton Hayes”. Arlington National Cemetery Website. Michael Robert Patterson. August 21, 2006. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/irahayes.htm

[2] Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers. Wheeler. Rockland, MA. 2000. p. 130-131.

[3] Bradley, p. 132.

[4] Bradley, p. 138.

[5] Bradley, p. 144-147.

[6] Bradley; p. 173.

[7] Bradley, p. 198-200.

[8] Bradley, p. 211.

[9] Bradley, p. 220-221.

[10] Bradley, p. 224.

[11] Alexander, Joseph H. “From Leatherneck: Iwo Jima ‘Hell With The Fire Out’”. Marine Corps Association & Foundation. February 1995. https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/leatherneck-iwo-jima-hell-fire-out

[12] Bradley, p. 264.

[13] Bradley, p. 260-267.

[14] Bradley, p. 275-276.

[15] Bradley, p. 354.

[16] Bradley, p. 383-414.

[17] Bradley, p. 517.

[18] Bradley, p. 557-558.

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