An Irishman's Diary


The iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal, who died this year aged 95, of US marines raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima won a Pulitzer Prize for the AP photographer, writes Seán Ó Riain.

 It was taken about 1pm on February 23rd, 1945, and flashed around the world on the wire services in time to appear in the Sunday newspapers on the 25th . It was used as a model for the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Washington DC. It was used on a postage stamp and appeared on the covers of countless magazines. "It has everything," enthused Eddie Adams, an AP photographer who took another picture that helped sum up a war - one of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a suspect.

The people of the USA responded to Rosenthal's photograph because it was a stirring symbol of the victory they so badly craved. However, Rosenthal's picture was a photograph of the second flag-raising ceremony on Mount Suribachi on that far-off day. The fame of Rosenthal's photo has distracted from the first picture and from the tragic story of Ira Hayes, a Native American of the Pima tribe and one of the flag-raisers in Rosenthal's photograph.

Corporal Chuck Lindberg told how the first flag-raising happened. "The lieutenant told us to take Mount Suribachi and if we got to the top to raise the flag he gave us. We got to the top and the first thing myself and five others did was put up the flag. Two of the men found a long pole up there, we tied the flag to it, carried it to the highest spot we could find and raised it. Boy, the island came alive down below, the troops started to cheer, the ships' whistles went off."

Sergeant Lou Lowery, photographer with Leatherneck magazine, photographed the moment but few have heard of him. He didn't take the famous photo! It was 10.37am.

On his way down the mountain Lowery met Rosenthal climbing up because he had heard that there was a flag-raising ceremony taking place. Lowery told him it was all over but to go on up. "The view is worth it."

Ronald Takaki in his book, Double Victory - A Multicultural History of America in World War II, tells how Rosenthal, when he reached the top, found army cameramen filming a staged second raising of the flag. The men were struggling with the ropes, the lieutenant shouted "Ira Hayes! Ira Hayes!", the Pima tribesman and two others sprang to help. Rosenthal's photo - six marines, faceless, their bodies straining to raise the American flag unfurled in victory - became the most famous news image of the second World War.

But that day victory was still months away, the bloody battle for Iwo Jima was only beginning. It raged for another 31 days and claimed 7,000 American and 20,000 Japanese lives. Half of the flag-raisers died.

Before the arrival of Columbus the Pima, an agricultural people, had developed an irrigation system to bring the water of the Gila River in Arizona to their fields. During the US-Mexican war the Pima people supplied food to the US troops.

In return the authorities gave the Pima an annual allocation of water from the Gila.

However, white settlers began to occupy lands upriver and built dams to divert the water to their farms. The lands of the Pima became dry, crops failed and by 1942 prospects for young men like Ira Hayes were grim.

In the autumn of 1942 Hayes joined the marines - employment, a chance to fight for one's country, the hope that things would be better for his people after the war, the belief that Native Americans had to make sacrifices in the war. His name, he told his fellow marines, came from the census-takers of the 19th century who gave the Pima English, Scottish and Irish names.

Hayes bravely faced the ferocity of a tropical land and grisly behaviour on the battlefield. When he was identified as one of the flag-raisers, he became an immediate hero. He and two other flag-raisers were flown back to the US to help lead the Seventh War Loan Drive. They were wined and dined, met President Truman, stayed at the Waldorf Hotel and criss-crossed the country. Ira was confident that good things for the Native Americans would follow.

But the tour of America became the worst experience of Ira's life. He never thought of himself as a hero and was consumed by guilt that he had survived instead of the real heroes, his "good buddies", who died in battle. He struggled with the praise that was heaped on him. "People shoved drinks in our hands and said we were heroes. I was sick."

When peace came Hayes could not settle down. "On the reservation I got hundreds of letters. I got sick of hearing about the flag-raising and sometimes I wished the guy had never made the picture." He constantly struggled with his inability to reconcile himself as being worthy of fame for being one of the lucky survivors of a brutal war. Alcohol became his only escape.

He became a drifter, a loner, filled with despair for the plight of his people who still had no water and no crops.

Ira Hayes (1923-1955) died on January 24th, drunk, lying in his own vomit in a street drain. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery. The Ballad of Ira Hayes, by Peter La Farge, has been recorded by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.