PHOENIX (AP) – When Ira Hayes was alive, his image was captured in one of the most famous battle photographs ever taken - the World War II picture of U.S. Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima.
Now, more than a half-century later, it turns out that Hayes’ image also was captured in death - secretly cast in plaster while he lay in a Phoenix mortuary awaiting burial.
The heroic and tragic story of Hayes, a Pima Indian from Bapchule, was depicted in books, Hollywood films and popular music. The death mask, only recently discovered by Hayes’ family, adds one more chapter to the historic odyssey, a postscript with its own controversy and cultural questions. This month, Kenneth Hayes, 78, received his brother’s final impression as a donation from the Gilbert Ortega Museum Gallery in Scottsdale, where the mask had been on display for years, unbeknownst to relatives. Family members laid the object to rest last week on the Gila River Reservation where Hayes was born and died. The surviving relatives say the burial allows Hayes’ spirit to go free into the next world.
The death mask itself represents something of a mystery, from its unauthorized creation to its display.
Amid the final battles of World War II, Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes and five other Marines were frozen in time 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 from Bapchule into an unwilling national celebrity. Hayes was one of only 27 members of a company of 250 to survive the battle on Mount Suribachi. In the aftermath, President Harry Truman declared him a hero and ordered him back to the States to join a tour raising money through the sale of war bonds.
The 23-year-old hated being a center of attention and considered his fallen comrades to be the true heroes, according to biographer S.D. Nelson, who wrote, “Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story.”
After an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, Hayes returned to his home in the poverty-stricken Gila River Indian Community, seeking solitude and anonymity in a bottle.
Despite Hayes’ misgivings, a mountain peak, a school and an American Legion post were named for him. He appeared as himself in a 1949 John Wayne film. More recently, he was portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 movie, “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the book about Iwo Jima by James Bradley and Ron Powers.
Ten years after the war, at age 32, Hayes’ body was found lying in a small creek. He had died of exposure after getting into a drunken fight during a poker game.
A ballad written by Peter LaFarge and popularized by Johnny Cash, among others, contains this melancholy refrain:
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war.
According to a biography on the Web site of Arlington National Cemetery, where Hayes is buried, his memorial ceremony in Phoenix was Arizona’s largest at the time.
But only a handful of people knew what occurred the night before in the mortuary.
A lump of linen is placed atop a glass display case at Gilbert Ortega Museum Gallery in Scottsdale.
Larry Cook, Ira Hayes’ grand nephew, unwraps the package to reveal the mask, emphasizing that no photographs are allowed. Cook’s wife, Sharon, studies the visage, comparing it to pictures of the Marine. “In Pima culture, when you pass on, everything you own is supposed to go with you,” she says. “They say because of this Ira’s body was never sent to rest. It’s still lingering.”
Gilbert Ortega Jr. produces a one-page document explaining the history of the mask. It was written and notarized in 1986 by Shirley Nelson, now living in Yuma. It says a Phoenix artist named Hortense Johnson went to the funeral parlor and made a cast of Hayes’ face to preserve history. The next morning, Johnson visited the Nelsons home still splotched with plaster: “Hortense said Ira Hayes was to be buried that day and she just could not let this happen without making a death mask. It was her intent to make a bust of Ira.”
Johnson died of cancer without making a sculpture.
In a telephone interview, Nelson continues the story, explaining that she and her mother received the mask as a gift from Johnson’s grieving husband. “He was going to throw it out,” she recalls. “My mom and I were the only people who knew what it was, so he gave it to us.”
When Nelson’s mother died in 1959, Nelson inherited Ira’s image. There was always a sense of reverence, she adds, an appreciation of its importance. “We knew that it was history, and we didn’t want history lost. . . . Ira lived in our house for many years.”
Nelson says the mask was kept in a cupboard because her Navajo foster child and his Native American friends were afraid of it. “They would come to the door and ask, ‘Is Ira put away?’ “ she recalls.
In the early 1980s, while living in Snowflake, Nelson befriended a Navajo artist named Robert Yellowhair, who expressed an interest in making a sculpture of Hayes for the U.S. Marine Corps. Nelson says she gave the mask to Yellowhair, who picks up the story in a separate interview.
Yellowhair says he viewed the mask as a valuable collector’s item and never created a monument. Around 1995, he took the mask to Gilbert Ortega Sr., owner of Native American art and jewelry stores. Details of their arrangement are unclear. Yellowhair, who recalls giving the mask to Ortega on consignment, claims he is still its rightful owner, though he lacks documentation. Gilbert Ortega Sr. died six years ago. Ortega Jr., now president of the galleries, says his father never took objects on consignment and the mask was always displayed with a sign declaring, “Not for Sale.”
Ortega Jr. says there were offers over the years, but his father rejected them. “My dad always prided himself in the mask,” Ortega Jr. adds. “There’s no way to put a value on something like that. The value is from the heart more than money.”
In 1999, the story shifts back to the Gila reservation. According to tribal records, cultural-preservation officers learned of the death mask on display in Scottsdale and expressed concern but did nothing.
A decade elapsed before tribal officials raised the issue again, and this time, word reached family members. Larry Cook says he was taken aback when he visited the gallery.
There is no such thing as a death mask in Pima culture, he adds, because key possessions should go with the deceased into the next world. Cook and his great uncle, Kenneth Hayes, approached Ortega Jr., who agreed to donate 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. explains. “I felt my dad would donate it, give it back to the family, so I decided to do the same.”
“Ira’s spirit is not totally rested,” Cook agrees. “We thank Mr. Ortega, too, for seeing in his heart to give the mask back.”
Family members returned to the Gila reservation a few hours later. According to Sharon Cook, they gathered for a private ceremony near the graves of Hayes’ mother and father. The mask was broken into bits and buried.
Cook says they left no marker, no monument, so that a legend may rest undisturbed.