The story behind “Flags of Our Fathers”

by guest contributor Carole Levine, originally published at NativeVue

flags of our fathersVery few people have ever heard of Ira Hayes. But he’s a hero. He and millions of other young men who weren’t quite men yet, but boys; underfed, undereducated boys growing up during the Great Depression intolerant and fearful of each other’s ethnic differences.

Despite all that, they were heroes in the purest of the pure sense of the word. They were heroes because they fought and died and prevailed for a cause that really had little to do with their hardscrabble lives whether they had traveled steerage or had roots to the land spanning thousands of years.

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona who joined the Marine Corps shortly after the start of World War II. He was hungry and needed money, and not least, he wanted to bring honor to his tribe. What happened to him during the war and his death as a demoralized, lonely alcoholic ten years later defines the legacy of naivete, pride, exploitation and bigotry of the era.

Most Americans alive today don’t know Ira Hayes. But most do recognize his image; one of the six young men planting the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima during the waning days of World War II. Their flag raising, captured on film by photographer Joe Rosenthal, has been cast in bronze and reproduced more than any photographic image in history.

The story of the men in the photo—only three of whom survived the bloodbath that killed nearly 7,000 Marines and wounded 18,000 more—was detailed in the best-selling book Flags of Our Fathers. Written by the son of one of the three survivors, John Bradley, the book takes a straight-edged look at the sacrifice, valor, and manipulation of the men, no…boys…who waged what my Dad’s generation referred to as “THE War.”

Clint Eastwood has adapted James Bradley’s book into a movie. Ira Hayes, the young Pima from Arizona who fought for a nation that had massacred and marginalized his people is now depicted onscreen to an international audience who never knew nor cared who he was. He is portrayed by Adam Beach, the first Native actor ever to be cast in the role. In a previous movie made in 1961, Hayes was played by Tony Curtis. Yes. Tony Curtis.

It’s too bad most of us don’t know who Ira Hayes was or even have a clue why his snapshot in history is significant in the grand scheme. It’s also too bad Eastwood’s film will likely perform miserably at the box office since it lacks the cynical depictions of middle-American life or crotch-fests audiences gravitate to.

Flags of Our Fathers is not an easy film to watch. The story of Hayes and his comrades will make you wince, cry and disgusted. Despite all this, Flags of Our Fathers will also give you faith. Faith in heroes like the boys from the farms, factory towns, slums, and reservations who hated to be called heroes at all.

Yes, Ira Hayes is a hero. And for that reason alone, I thank Clint Eastwood and Adam Beach for reminding us.