Friday, February 27, 2009

Ira Hayes and Other Heroes

Ira Hamilton Hayes (1923 – 1955) was Pima Native American and member of the Gila River Indian Community. He was in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and a veteran of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. Hayes was one of five Marines (along with a Navy medic) shown in Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.

Hayes (on the far left of the photograph) became a national hero, along with the two other survivors of the famous photograph, Rene Gagnon and John Bradley. Hayes's story drew particular attention because he was Native American.

After the war Hayes was arrested some fifty times for drunkenness. He apparently suffered greatly from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was not well known or understood at the time. Hayes was found dead in 1955 at the age of 32, face down and lying in his own vomit and blood near an abandoned hut close to his home on the Gila River Indian Reservation. He had been drinking and playing cards with several other men. The coroner concluded that Hayes' death was due to both exposure and alcohol. Hayes is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Ira Hayes appeared in the 1949 John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima along with the two other surviving fellow flag raisers. All three men played themselves in the movie when Wayne hands the flag to be raised to the three men. (The actual flag that was raised on Mount Suribachi is used in the film.) The life of Ira Hayes was featured in a book by James Bradley called Flags of Our Fathers

Johnny Cash (who was actually Scottish and not part Native American as he had believed for a time) performed “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Peter LaFarge. Cash took the song to No. 3 on the Billboard country music chart in 1964. Here are some of the lyrics--

There they battled up Iwo Jima's hill
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived
To walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian Ira Hayes

Ira returned a hero
Celebrated through the land
He was wined and speeched and honored
Everybody shook his hand

Then Ira started drinkin' hard
Jail was often his home
They'd let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you'd throw a dog a bone

He died drunk one mornin'
Alone in the land he fought to save
Two inches of water in a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

Another Native American war hero was Billy Walkabout (1949-2006) who served in the US Army during the Viet Nam War. He was a native Cherokee from Oklahoma. He died at the age of 57. He is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Billy Walkabout was one of the most decorated soldiers of that war. He received the Purple Heart, five Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in Vietnam in 1968 while with U.S. Army Company F, 58th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The citation states that—

Sgt. Walkabout (then a Specialist) distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions during a long range reconnaissance patrol southwest of Hue. After successfully ambushing an enemy squad on a jungle trail, his patrol radioed for immediate extraction by helicopter.

When the helicopters arrived the lead man was seriously wounded by hostile machine gun fire. Walkabout started shooting at the enemy while the wounded man was pulled back to safety. Walkabout then administered first aid to the soldier. As the wounded solider was being loaded onto the helicopter, enemy elements again attacked the team.

While maneuvering under heavy fire Walkabout started shooting at the enemy again. A mine then blasted through Walkabout’s team, killing three men and wounding all the others. While he was wounded himself, Walkabout rushed from man to man administering first aid, bandaging one soldier's severe chest wound and reviving another soldier by heart massage. He then coordinated gunship and tactical air strikes on the enemy's positions.

When evacuation helicopters arrived again, he worked single-handedly under fire to board his disabled comrades. Only when the casualties had been evacuated and friendly reinforcements had arrived, did he allow himself to be extracted.

Lori Ann Piestewa (1979 - 2003) was the first woman in the US armed forces to be killed in the 2003 Iraq War. She was also the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving with the US military. She was a member of the Hopi Tribe from Arizona.

PFC Piestewa was a member of the US Army's 507th Army Maintenance Company, a support unit of clerks, cooks, and repair personnel. Her company was traveling in a convoy through the desert and was meant to bypass Nasiriyah in southern Iraq during the opening days of the war.

The convoy became lost and ran into an ambush in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Under heavy enemy fire, PFC Piestewa drove at a high speed, successfully evading the enemy fire until an RPG hit the front-left wheel-well of her Humvee. The force of the explosion sent her vehicle into the rear of a disabled tractor-trailer. Three other soldiers in the Humvee died in the crash.

Piestewa was injured in the ambush, as was her friend Jessica Lynch. Both Piestewa and Lynch survived but were wounded. They were taken prisoner, with Piestewa dying soon after of her wounds. Piestewa and her company were first considered missing in action. Later it was learned that Piestewa and several other members of her company did not survive the ambush.

Piestewa was a single mother of two children at the time of her death. She was 24.

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