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Paying respects

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona. He was the town drunk for years, until one night while walking home he fell into a ditch and drowned in inches of water at the age of 42 (correction: 33) in Bapchule, Arizona. In that way, he was one of many countless derelicts and bums who died ignoble deaths.

But years ago Ira Hayes was a member of many select groups. He was a Marine who served in World War II. In January of 1945, he was one of 60,000 Americans who stormed ashore an island called Iwo Jima. He was one of a company of 250 Marines that besieged the Japanese emplacements atop Mount Suribachi. He was one of 27 Marines who escaped being killed or wounded on that mountain. He was one of six men who were photographed in one of the most famous pictures of World War II while they raised the flag atop that mountain. And he was one of the three men of those six who weren't killed before they could leave that island.

Ira Hayes was astonished when President Truman called him and the other two survivors home to tour and sell war bonds. Ira never saw himself as a hero; to him, the heroes were his buddies he'd left behind on that godforsaken island.

Ira couldn't escape the memories (and what we'd probably call today "survivor's guilt") of that island that claimed 7,000 American lives. He crawled into the bottle and eventually it killed him.

The other two survivors from that photo were John Bradley and Rene Gagnon. Rene Gagnon was from Manchester, New Hampshire, the city I currently call home. He was the youngest of the three, and he died in 1979.

In downtown Manchester sits Victory Park. It's in front of the city library, and is bounded by Concord and Amherst Streets north and south, Pine and Chestnut Streets east and west. It's about half a mile from my home. Just off the center of the park, along a walkway away from the main monument, sits a small monument to Rene Gagnon. It consists of two granite disks and two granite benches. On one of those disks is a quote from Rene Gagnon: "Do not glorify war. There's nothing glorious about it."

On my way home tonight, I swung a bit out of my way and stopped by the park. I stood quietly at attention before it for a moment, righted a wreath that had fallen over, picked up some garbage that was strewn around it, stood for one last moment, then tossed the trash and came home.

I didn't salute. I never served in the military, and I always felt it presumptuous of civilians to salute members of the military. I don�t feel I�ve earned the right to make that gesture of respect. If anyone knows of a proper way a civilian can make an equivalent demonstration, I'd be grateful.

And in memory of Ira Hayes, I slipped a dollar into the hand of the drunk passed out on one of the benches.

J.

I�d like to thank three websites for giving me valuable details for the above work:
Here for the details of the battle of Iwo Jima.
Here for biographical information about Ira Hayes.
And here for biographical information about Rene Gagnon, by his son, Rene Gagnon, Jr.

Addendum: Both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan recorded versions of "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes." It was hearing Cash's rendition earlier today that served as the catalyst for this piece. I have yet to hear Dylan's, but I'm sure it will be outstanding. It's not great music, but the subject matter alone makes it a classic.

Addendum II: Reader Shirley points out I had Ira Hayes' age of death wrong. Ira was not 33, not 42, a fact listed prominently at the top of the biographical page I linked to above. Thanks, Shirley.


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Comments (8)

It is one of my most favori... (Below threshold)

It is one of my most favorite Johnny Cash songs, and I never realized it was based on a real person. Thanks...

Aaron, you make me envious.... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Aaron, you make me envious. I want you to take a moment and do three things.

First, think of the first time you heard "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes."

Second, think of how many times you've seen that image of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima since you first heard that song.

Finally, think about how many times you looked at the real Ira Hayes without ever once realizing you were seeing the subject of one of your favorite songs.

I can only imagine the chill, the thrill, the wierd tingling in the back of the skull you'll feel...

And I'm glad my piece meant something to you. Thanks for your comment.

To everyone else: the lyrics to "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" are on the page I linked to above and re-linked here.

J.

Great piece!I served... (Below threshold)
Derba:

Great piece!
I served in the miltary from 75 to 80 and I come from a very long line of veterans.
I would respectfully suggest that one fo the best forms of showing respect while silently standing in front of any memorial dedicated to a veteran would be to place ones hand over ones heart during the moment of silence.
It is only appropriate to salute if one is in uniform and covered (wearing a hat)

Yes, it makes the song even... (Below threshold)

Yes, it makes the song even more poignant - something I didn't think was even possible.

Dylan's version is wonderfu... (Below threshold)

Dylan's version is wonderful.

Bradley's book Flags of our Fathers covers all the 'flag raisers.' Very powerful. Actually, it was written by Bradley's son.

Derba is correct; right han... (Below threshold)

Derba is correct; right hand over your heart is appropriate, as you would during the National Anthem.

You should also take off your hat, if you're wearing one.

This is the proper protocol for other situations too; during a parade when the American Flag marches past, when crossing a ship's quarterdeck, when observing colors on a military base, etc.

Kinky Friedman---author, co... (Below threshold)

Kinky Friedman---author, country singer, and god willin', the next governor of the great state o' Texas---does a great version of "Ballad of Ira Hayes" as well. Worth checking out

I appreciate you posting th... (Below threshold)
Shirley:

I appreciate you posting this tribute not only to Rene Gagnon, but to Native American Ira Hayes, but may I ask that you correct his age at death. Ira was born in 1923 and died in 1955. He was only 32 years old and his death was a true tragedy.
Thanks.




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