Monday, November 16, 2020

Warriors in the Ranks

Annamaria on Monday 

Native Americans, like indigenous populations all over the  world, have been grossly mistreated since the first European ships arrived on their shores.  Of late, we have heard how the number of Native Americans suffering from Covid is out of proportion to their population.  Though ethnic data is not available from every state, where we have it, we can see that Native Americans are three and a half times more likely to test positive than the non-Hispanic white population.  This tragedy is, therefore, befalling groups already overly vulnerable because of poverty, poor health-care under any circumstances, and because they often live great distances from clinics and hospitals.

But among the sick is not the only place you will find disproportionate numbers of Native Americans.  They are also much more likely to serve their country in the military. This despite the fact that their government once tried to destroy their way of life.  Yes, since the September 11 attacks, close to 19 percent of the Native American population--regardless of tribal connection--have served the country, as compared to 14 percent for all other ethnic groups. (And need I say 0% for the Trump family!)

For his service in WWII, one particular American Indian actually--for a while anyway--received quite a bit of adulation. He was a US Marine paratrooper named Ira Hamilton Hayes.  And he was not comfortable with the recognition heaped upon him.

Almost everyone has seen the iconic photo of the Marines at Iwo Jima.  Here it is with the men identified.  Ira is the the second from the left.


Some people also know that there were two photos of the planting of the American flag at the summit of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima.  The battle had been fiercely fought.  On the American side, of the 30,000 combatants, 6800 were killed and another 19,200 were wounded.  Photographer Joe Rosenthal took the first photo as the Marines took the hill.  But the flag in that photo was deemed too small, so a staged version of the photo was repeated with a larger flag.  Ira Hayes was recruited for the second photo. Though he had fought as bravely as anyone else, he felt he did not deserve the fame that came from being one of those Marines.

After the victory, the men in the second photo were brought back to the USA to appear at bond rallies that raised money for the war effort.  Eventually, Ira portrayed himself in the John Wayne movie The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Ira Hayes had always been a bright, studious, but extraordinarily quiet boy.  When the image he had been part of was reproduced as the Marine Corps Monument in Washington DC, he was there at its dedication on 10 November 1954.  That, it seems, was too much for Ira Hayes to bear.  Having suffered from what we now call PTSD, and what we now recognize as survivors' guilt, he had already taken to drinking heavily.  He went back to his home in Bapchule, Arizona.  After two days of binge drinking the following January 23 and 24, he was found dead in a ditch of exposure and alcohol poisoning. There were, you understand, no special treatments for or consideration of those who suffered from "battle fatigue."

Ira's life was the subject of a 1961 film, The Outsider, in which Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes. Actor Adam Beach played him in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers in 2006.

Ira, by then, had been buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.    

Considering what unwanted adulation did to Ira Hayes, perhaps I should not be upset by what happened to other Native American servicemen.  But I can't help it.  I resent my country's failure to recognize the critical role Native Americans played in American victories WWI. They were the Code Talkers - soldiers on the battlefields who used their native tongues as a way to transmit secret tactical messages. The Cherokee and Choctaw soldiers in France in WWI pioneered the technique of communicating in their own languages to keep the enemy from understanding.

And those who took up the technique in WWII, were not given the place in history they deserved until 1982. 

I knew about the Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific from my dad.  They invented code words in Navajo for English words for which there was no Navajo equivalent.  They were incredibly creative about the way they used their own language.  In fact, though the Brits at Bletchley were able to break the infamous German Enigma code, the Navajo Code Talkers’ messages were never cracked. Not Ever!

Immensely brave in battle and brilliant at their job, the nation took them for granted.  


  1. Great post, Annamaria. I confess that I had not heard of Ira Hamilton Hayes until now, although I was aware of how uncelebrated were the brilliant WWII code talkers. As we've just had Remembrance Day here on 11/11, it's a timely reminder of how unappreciated such sacrifices are.

    1. Many thanks, Zoe. Quite a few Americans know part of his story from a song recorded by Johnny Cash.

      It isn’t high art, but in the mournful timbre of Cash’s voice, I do find it moving.

  2. Irony of ironies how back in 1961 they used a non Native American to portray the role, which would be considered offensive in modern times. At least Eastwood's film had a Native American in the role.

    1. True observation, Kwei! That casting would not have caused the slightest ripple in 1961. But even the likes of Eastwood thought better of such a decision in 2006! More grist for my optimism mill. Not that we can let down our guard. But progress is progress!

  3. In South Africa, all the focus on heroes of the wars from the Boer to the second world war were white. Few people noticed how many black lives were lost in all three.

    1. So right, Michael. I am working on Vera and Tolliver 5: the year is 1915 and the askaris and porters are dying in British AND German East Africa. One estimate is that 40,000 died in that year and in those two colonies alone. When I toured the battlefields of Kenya a few years ago, we visited cemeteries. They buried whites separately from Indians and only a tiny percentage of the black lives lost were even acknowledged, much less mourned. The whole planet BADLY needs a lesson that Black Lives Matter.

  4. Let us hope (and pray), Sis, that the times are changing, and celebratory flag raising moments come to pass without further bloody prologues.