PHOENIX – Raised in the Indian community of the Gila River south of Phoenix, Brian Alphus Jr. is familiar with the story of Ira Hayes.
The two are similar in many ways: they are both Native Americans from the same Pima reserve. And like Hayes, Alphus plans to join the United States Marine Corps this summer at the age of 19.
Hayes became world famous, captured in the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of six US marines who raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. It was the one on the far left who was looking for the flag pole.
His heroics occurred 75 years ago this week, but continue to resonate today.
“Ira was an idol of the community, a hero and a model,” said Alphus, who added that he had “no father model” in his life and that veterans like Hayes help bridge the gap.
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Many members of the Indian Gila River community spoke about Hayes’ legacy on Saturday during a military parade near Veterans Memorial Park on the Indian Gila River community, 40 miles southeast of Phoenix.
Several hundred people near and far attended the celebration, which was held in honor of the 75th anniversary of the raising of the flag.
For Valerie Fagerberg, Hayes ‘story was one of resilience because, in addition to surviving the war, she had to deal with post-traumatic stress and survivors’ guilt at a time when there were not many resources available for veterans. Fagerberg is a resource navigator for the veterans office and community family services.
“For him to go through what has been put through and for this community to come together and honor him as a tribal member makes me very proud,” he said.
Hayes was born in 1923 in Sacaton, Arizona. In 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in the Solomon Islands in Vella Lavella, the Bougainville Campaign and Iwo Jima, among other places. Hayes won the laudatory medal of the Navy and the Marine Corps with a combat “V” and a combat ribbon.
When he returned, he was hailed as a hero and even starred in the 1949 Hollywood movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima”, with John Wayne.
But life ended tragically. His experiences in the war left him with feelings of depression and isolation and what today would be considered a post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the night of January 24, 1955, the 33-year-old got drunk during a poker game and fell into a drainage pit, where he died from exposure. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, not far from the Iwo Jima memorial.
Wayne Allison’s great-grandmother, Emma Whittaker, and Hayes’s mother, Nancy Whittaker Hayes, were sisters.
“It means a lot to us, the family, knowing that there was a Native American who raised the flag (and) became symbolic of America,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand the seriousness of his family’s story until when he has not become an adult.
Now, Allison represents the family in various events across the country, including Saturday in Sacaton. There, he displayed one of Hayes’ military dog tags. Hayes was buried with the other.
More than 30 years ago, members of the Indian community Gila River Lancelot and Shirley Lewis started creating a Hayes monument at the Veterans Memorial Park with the help of Oscar Urrea, a sculptor.
The monument has a stone base, a black tile and a bronze flag-raising relief. Several stones placed at the top of the monument were requested from Iwo Jima’s land, said Lancelot.
At the time Lancelot, a Vietnam veteran, was the commander of the IRA Hayes American Legion Post 84 in Sacaton. Since the monument’s creation in 1988, the community has celebrated Hayes and flag-raising at Iwo Jima every year in the park, he said.
Brian Alphus’ mother, Carol Alphus, said he hopes that one day his son will become a model in the same way that Hayes is a model for him.
“I am very humble and happy to know that I am part of him (Hayes) and that we are bringing his memory into and in our hearts.”
Follow the Chelsea Curtis reporter on Twitter @curtis_chels.
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