Friday, December 4, 2009

Iwo Jima flag raiser's body 'was never sent to rest'

Ira Hayes
Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

When Ira Hayes was alive, his image was captured in one of the most famous war photographs ever taken — the World War II image of U.S. military personnel raising the flag over Iwo Jima.

Last month, 54 years since his death, his family learned that another image of Hayes, a face mask, had been cast in plaster while he lay in a Phoenix mortuary. The mask of Hayes, a Pima Indian from Bapchule, Ariz., was made without the family's knowledge and ended up on display at the Gilbert Ortega Museum Gallery of Scottsdale.

"In Pima culture, when you pass on, everything you own is supposed to go with you," says Sharon Cook, a Hayes family member. "They say because of this, Ira's body was never sent to rest."

Kenneth Hayes, 78, received his brother's mask in November from the gallery. Hours later, relatives returned it to the Gila River Indian Reservation where Ira Hayes was born and died, according to Larry Cook, Hayes' grand-nephew.

The mask was broken to bits and buried near the graves of his parents, Sharon Cook says.

The discovery of the mask adds one more chapter to the odyssey of Hayes, who has been depicted in books, films (including Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers) and music.

Amid the final battles of World War II, Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes, four Marines and a Navy corpsman were captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal as they raised the Stars and Stripes.

The 1945 picture, which came to symbolize American courage and patriotism, transformed a troubled Indian kid into an unwilling national celebrity. Hayes was one of only 27 of the company of 250 to survive the battle on Mount Suribachi, according to historical reports.

President Harry Truman declared Hayes a hero and ordered him back to the states to join a tour raising money through the sale of war bonds.

According to S.D. Nelson, who wrote, Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story, the 23-year-old corporal considered his fallen comrades the true heroes. After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Nelson wrote, Hayes returned to his home in the poverty-stricken Gila River Indian Community, seeking solitude — and often turning to alcohol. Hayes died of exposure in 1955 at the age of 32 after getting into a drunken fight during a poker game. His body was found lying in a creek, Larry Cook said.

Gilbert Ortega Jr., the gallery president, says the history of the mask can be found in a one-page document written in 1986 by Shirley Nelson of Yuma: A Phoenix artist named Hortense Johnson went to the funeral parlor and made a cast of Hayes' face. It was her intent to make a bust of Ira.

After Johnson's death, her husband gave the mask to Nelson and her mother. "My mom and I were the only people who knew what it was, so he gave it to us," she says.

In the early 1980s, artist Robert Yellowhair expressed an interest in making a sculpture of Hayes. Nelson says she gave the mask to Yellowhair.

Yellowhair never created the sculpture and in 1995 gave the mask to Gilbert Ortega Sr., owner of Native American art and jewelry stores.

"My dad always prided himself on the mask," Ortega Jr. says. "There's no way to put a value on something like that."

Larry Cook and his great uncle, Kenneth approached Ortega Jr. about donating the mask to Ira's descendants. "I believe it still has the spirit in there, and that's what led the family here," Ortega Jr. says.

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