Sunday, August 12, 2012

Story Songs: The Ballad of Ira Hayes

Ira Hayes was one of six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima  during World War II. He was a tragic hero, and his life was immortalized in the song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," by Peter La Farge.

Hayes was a Native American, a member of the Pima tribe in Arizona. He enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Pacific Theater. He became a national hero after Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph was seen by millions around the world.

La Farge's song tells the story of the troubled life of Hayes, who couldn't handle the fame and became an alcoholic. He died 10 years after the war, in 1955, found in a ditch after a night of drinking.  

The storyteller opens with:

"Gather round you people and a story I will tell
About a brave young Indian you should remember well
From the tribe of the Pima Indians, a proud and peaceful band
They farmed the Phoenix Valley in Arizona land"

He goes on to say that although white settlers ruined the land, Hayes answered the call to fight for his country in the war. And he ended up, at the age of 22, at Iwo Jima:

"They started up Iwo Jima Hill, 250 men

But only 27 lived to walk back down that hill again

And when the fight was over and the old glory raised
One of the men who held it high was the Indian Ira Hayes"

Hayes was celebrated across the United States for this heroics, but it took a toll on him as found more solace with the bottle than with the fame:

"And Ira started drinking hard, jail was often his home

They let him raise the flag there and lower it like you'd throw a dog a bone

He died drunk early one morning, alone in the land he had fought to save
Two inches of water in a lonely ditch was the grave for Ira Hayes"

Hayes was 12 days past his 32nd birthday when he died. This has to be one of the saddest songs ever written about a war veteran. The powerful lyrics truly tug at the heart: 

"Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war"

Through the years and other wars, you wonder if the situation has really changed that much for those who served their nation with honor and valor. We have all witnessed the effects of war on soldiers and civilians.

Author James Bradley, with Ron Powers, wrote about the fateful day in Iwo Jima in acclaimed "Flags of Our Fathers."  Bradley's father, John, was one of the flag raisers.

Clint Eastwood's movie, based on the book, was released in 2006. I think it's one of the best films about war and the consequences on those who serve. Another movie, "The Outsider," featured Tony Curtis portraying Hayes. 

"The Ballad of Ira Hayes"  lyrics

There have been several covers of this song but I believe Johnny Cash's version is the best.


  1. I recall seeing that movie and it was a sad thing alright. I have to say that I also got to meet Johnny Cash and his wife fact I have the pleasure of saying that I was in their "bedroom."

  2. Unfortunately, there have been many personal tragedies for veterans from every war. I had a friend who was a publicist for Cash and said Johnny was a very nice guy.