On January 24, 1955, Ira Hamilton Hayes died from alcohol poisoning near where he lived in Sacaton, Arizona. Even if you do not recognize the name, you have seen a photo of Hayes, as the 22-year-old Pima Indian Marine appears in the famous historical photo by Joe Rosenthal of soldiers raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima in 1945 during World War II.
The image was also used as a model for the 1954 Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery, where Hayes is now buried. The war image and what happened to Hayes after the famous flag raising have since been immortalized in pop culture.
Ira Hayes in Movies
If you were not born during World War II but recognize the name of Ira Hayes, you may have seen the movie about Hayes directed by Delbert Mann and called The Outsider (1961). In that movie, Tony Curtis starred as the Native American Hayes. [September 2015 Update: Unfortunately, clips from The Outsider are no longer available on YouTube.]
Adam Beach portrayed Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006). The real Hayes played himself in the John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Here is a video of the flag-raising in the movie, even though you cannot single out Hayes in this clip.
Ira Hayes in Song: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
But most likely those of us in a certain generation recognize the name “Ira Hayes” because of a song. Songwriter Peter La Farge, inspired by The Outsider film, wrote the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
Johnny Cash then recorded the song and made it famous.
Like many others, I first learned about Ira Hayes through the Cash song. My dad used to play an 8-track with the song on it, and he explained to me the story about Ira Hayes. While the song takes some liberties about Hayes, it captures the essence of his tragic life. Because of the photo, Hayes was hailed as a hero, but he wanted to live a normal life and did not consider himself a hero after seeing so many of his comrades killed.
Hayes probably suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome. He fell on hard times and turned to alcohol, resulting in his death.
Cash’s version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” remains the most famous version of the song. But other artists like Kris Kristofferson have covered the tune.
Songwriter Townes Van Zandt captured the sadness in the song when he sang “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” as part of Solo Sessions, January 17, 1995.
While one might complain that the song oversimplifies Ira Hayes by focusing on his downfall, the song remains as a fitting tribute to the man. It helps keep him in our memories, while also reminding us of some of the downsides of war and fame. RIP Corporal Hayes.
Photo via public domain.
What is your favorite version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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