It’s widely known that the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima, a Japanese territory, became the site of an iconic World War Two battle. On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines mounted an operation to take the island, which Japan had turned into a strategic military base. Four days later, after fierce fighting, they took the island’s tallest peak, Mount Suribachi, and some of them planted the Stars and Stripes on the summit. One of the men who helped raise the flag was Private Ira Hayes. That single event would define the rest of his life.
Ira Hamilton Hayes was a Pima Native American born in 1923 in Sacaton, Arizona on the Gila River Indian reservation. Hayes was the oldest of six children. His father, farmer Joseph Hayes, had fought in World War One. Mom Nancy, born Nancy Hamilton, was a committed Presbyterian and Sunday school teacher.
In their 2006 book Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley and Ron Powers recorded the memories of Hayes’ cousin, Sara Bernal. “The other Hayes children would play and tease me, but not Ira. He was quiet, and somewhat distant,” she recalled. She remarked that Ira’s reserved nature really reminded her of his father.