Sunday, March 17, 2013

Quiet Heroism

He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 34, Grave 479A.  Everyone who knew him said he was the most quiet child they had ever known.  He only spoke to respond to a question.  Shy and quiet, he lost himself in the fantasy world of books.  He could read and write by the time he was four and was clearly very bright.

He grew no more outgoing as he grew up.  Though handsome enough he shied away from girls and kept to himself.  He and his family were extremely poor, trying to eke out a living by farming cotton in the hard scrape of desert.  But the family was a proud one.  His father had served in World War I and took great pride in his service.

Some of the paternal pride must have rubbed off on the shy and quiet boy.  When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, in an unusual revelry of words, he told a friend "I want to be a Marine and serve my country".

And so he did.  He underwent recruit training in San Diego and eventually became a Marine paratrooper.  In 1943 he sailed into the Pacific just in time for Bougainville.   A few months later his unit was disbanded and he was transferred to the 5th Marine Division.  He volunteered to return to the Pacific for more island hopping battlefronts.

On the 19th of February, 1945, his marine division landed on Iwo Jima.  His unit was one of the units who fought bloody battle after bloody battle to take a mountain occupied by Japanese and used to mow down his comrades.  On the fifth day he was one of some 250 men who executed a desperate assault to take that mountain.  Less than two dozen would survive to come back down.  But he was one of them...and he was one of six who raised the American flag on that mountain, a photo captured by a photographer who flashed it to the world a few days later.

And America somehow fell in love with those six soldiers who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi.  So they brought the six back to America.  The politicians welcomed them to Washington and pinned medals on their tunics.  And they sent them around the country, put them up in beautiful hotel rooms and paraded them onto stage after stage to sell War Bonds.

But all "he" wanted was to go home.  He wanted no part of hero worship.  Finally they did send him home, back to his hard scrapple adobe home.  Although he didn't like to talk, he had no problem redressing a wrong...and he spoke up when he learned one of the boys in the famous pic had been misidentified. He went on up to Route 66 and he hitchhiked 1400 miles to Texas to tell the family of the forgotten boy that their son, and not another, who was indeed one of the "six".  And they finally got it all straightened out.

Then "he" drifted back home.  Sadly, he got home, but his mind was still at war...and being someone who had never been able to express his thoughts, he suffered it alone.  He carried around a massive guilt that he should be honored and called "hero" when so many of his comrades never made it back.

And sadly, they didn't know what P.T.S.D was back there was no help to be had for a gentle and quiet soul who had seen so much violence and so much death.  And so, in a last desperate effort to quiet the war in his mind, and the hurt in his heart, he turned to the bottle.

And one cold January morning they found him lying dead in two inches of water in front of an abandoned adobe hut.  The Pima Indian named Ira Hayes, 32 years old,  he of the big deeds and the few words, would speak no more.

Sometimes deeds speak far more eloquently than words in any case.


  1. I don't know if this is a happier place than "Lost In America" today, but it certainly is a profound thought provoker. I learned about Ira Hayes because of the Johnny Cash ballad to him. I had to learn about that guy in that haunting tune.

    I truly admired those men for their amazing bravery (soldiers of Iwo Jima), but this man was above all my favorite of the group. From what I've read about those men, they all felt the same way as Ira. Just not to that degree, I guess. I've never been in the military, so I couldn't possibly even begin to fathom what that man felt, but whenever I read about him it makes me tear up. His is such a sad story with, I think, just a terrible end. I thought he was really forsaken by the military, I just can't justify the way he died in my mind, drunk, alone, in some ditch. The man was an American Hero, who was singled out for his bravery then forsaken because of his alcoholism. It's one of those things that makes me feel ashamed at his treatment by a military he fought so hard for.

    My father in law was party to one of those famous beach landings in the Pacific. I think it was either Midway or Wake Island (a bit ashamed I don't remember). With the first landing, he said they hit the beach at first light of dawn with over three hundred men and by noon only 17 were left, the rest all dead or wounded. When he told me the story he cried (he told me in 1978, I think, thirty years after the fact), but it was important for him to tell it, I can't remember why. I've never forgotten the chill I felt and still feel just thinking about that story and the way he told it, like it was his first time. To me that kind of carnage is just incomprehensible. What a horrible weight to carry all the rest of your life.

    If I've never said it, Thank You for Your Service to this great country of ours!