I Never Saw John Wayne on the Sands of Iwo Jima

I Never Saw John Wayne on the Sands Of Iwo Jima.

The World War Two battle for control of the Japanese Island, Iwo Jima, is well represented in popular culture. Indeed a photograph of a US flag being raised at the volcanic island’s summit, Mount Suribachi, is often claimed to be the most reproduced photograph of all time. This image has even been cast in bronze as the USMC National Memorial, sited in the famous military personnel cemetery, Arlington. The US Marine Corps holds a particular spot in the hearts of many US Nationals. It is portrayed as the embodiment of all that is good in US culture, as it is imagined that only the elite – the strongest, smartest and fittest of this young nation’s young nationals – are enlisted, to this, the most glamorous of the American Armed Forces. However, this position has largely been constructed from the popular mythology of the Battle of Iwo Jima, reinforced with Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph. Indeed, the Marine Corps’ position pre the Pacific Campaign was precarious - rumours of amalgamation into the Army or Navy were rife and the Marines’ existence as a separate entity was under serious threat. It was necessary for them to prove their use value, and the opportunity to do this arose with the Pacific Campaign and its opportunities for amphibious warfare.
The Battle of Iwo Jima took place between the USA and the Japanese Empire between February and March 1945. It was the first American attack on the Japanese home islands and took place under the precedent that its airfields were of strategic importance to both sides. Iwo Jima is a barren volcanic island of only 8 square miles and at the time of invasion had no civilian presence. This made it both an appealing military target for humanitarian reasons and a ferocious no-holds barred battlefield for the forces sent to fight there. It was decreed that victory was essential for both sides due to strategic and propaganda reasons and thus the battle was hard fought. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers over 20,000 were killed and the US forces suffered more than 7,000 losses, either confirmed dead or recorded as missing.

The famous photograph depicting American Marines raising the US flag (the Stars and Stripes) at the summit of Mount Suribachi appears to show victory, triumph and success.

fig 4.
In actuality, this event took place on day 5 of a more than a month long battle and the well-known moment recorded was not a moment of triumph at all, rather it was soldiers replacing another Stars and Stripes flags previously placed at the summit due to a dispute over which battalion actually owned the flag. Thus, it was not success that was recorded in this, possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time, but in fact a banal task of bureaucratic mundanity.

ig 5.
Even the events surrounding the initial flag raising 2 days before the iconic photograph was taken were not of particular significance. The Americans had been allowed to scale the volcano with only minimal intervention from Imperial forces who were actually lying in wait in a network of tunnels preparing to fight to the death for the principle of defending their homeland, although in reality Iwo Jima is a barren rock only slightly bigger than Canvey Island in Essex.
Japanese command had already concluded that victory was impossible and that they would be unable to repel invasion of the island due to their already much depleted Navy and Air forces, and instead were commanding operations with the intent to lose as fiercely as possible, never surrendering, and taking as many enemy lives as possible, thus claiming a psychological victory designed to deter the US forces from making any more land invasions.
However, this was not the story presented at the time, rather, due to a combination of propaganda and popular legend the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima has largely been considered to be broadly the same as that depicted the John Wayne vehicle of 1949 “The Sands Of Iwo Jima”. This was a hugely popular film at the time and earned John Wayne an Oscar nomination (the film received a total of four nominations, including Wayne for Best Actor in a Leading Role).

Fig 6.
The film was released just four years after the events dramatised - a time when tales of war-time heroism were still the norm and the natural questioning and criticism that comes about through time, distance and research had not yet begun. Consequently, the film is a typical Boy’s Own type adventure movie featuring a tough career sergeant and his adversarial subordinates learning to appreciate each other’s qualities before (or even after) the heroic death of a main character. Interestingly, out of John Wayne’s not inconsiderable back catalogue of over (number) pictures, this is one of very few in which his character dies[1], shot unexpectedly by a sniper, cementing the popular legend of Marine sacrifice and heroism for legions of movie-goers.
This fictionalised account is directly challenged in the Drive-by Truckers song of the same name[2]. The Drive-by Truckers have taken an oppositional stance to Hollywood on several occasions, often choosing to portray the view of the supposed anti-hero, filling in the good/evil black and white of Hollywood with numerous shades of grey. Their musical style and use of local historical and geographical detail present a compellingly authentic or truth-like feel[3] and their strategy of utilising Hollywood narratives to locate quiet tales of ordinary folk reinforces this sense of the authentic. This is most obvious in their (2003) track “Boys From Alabama” which begins with this spoken word introduction:

We’re going to take you up to McNairy county Tennessee,
Back in the days when Sheriff Buford Pusser ran things around there.
Sheriff Buford Pusser was trying to clean up McNairy County, Tennessee from all of them bootleggers that was bringing crime and corruption and illegal liquor up to his little dry county.
And for his troubles he got ambushed and his wife was murdered and his house got blown up and they made a movie about it called “Walking Tall”.
This is the other side of that story:[4]

The song goes on to tell the story of a young man pressed into illegal activity against his will, rather than that of the career criminals depicted in the cited film[5]. With this oppositional stance in mind, it seems natural that the narrative expressed in the (2003) song Sands Of Iwo Jima takes an oppositional stance in to its John Wayne movie namesake. This opposition is not as explicit as that in the song “Boys from Alabama”, instead utilising a more quiet, implied position. Telling the story of an Iwo Jima veteran, professed to be the great uncle of the songs protagonist, the song presents the narrative as a post-memory tale of life after war by describing the narrators Great Uncle, George A, and his conscription into the US forces in order to fight “half-a-world-away”[6]. The song gives little clue to actual events of World War Two, preferring instead to focus on the years beyond, peace-time and the distinct lack of peace it brings to George A and his fellow soldiers in their twilight years. The songwriter, Patterson Hood, says this:

As a kid, I spent every weekend at my Great-Uncle's farm (my family's old homestead) where I rode go-carts and acted out my favorite movie scenes in the woods. George A. is an amazing man (still kicking hard at 84) and I have long tried to capture a glimpse of those times in a song.

During World War II he was drafted and ended up on the island Iwo Jima in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. As a curious child, I'd often innocently ask him about all that. One night while watching the old John Wayne movie (The Sands Of Iwo Jima) on TV, he simply said that he "never saw John Wayne over there".

So many of the folks I've written about in this album feel forced into doing terrible things. George A. was no doubt, changed by his experience, but I know him to be easily one of the greatest men I have ever met, thus, making it a much trickier subject to write about. [7]

This unspoken tale of unspoken horror and quiet heroism is in stark contrast to the boy’s own depiction seen in the 1949 film of the same name. The refusal of George A to tell an explicit tale of a life in combat becomes the narrative in Hood’s post-memory. The gaps that would ordinarily be filled by Hollywood depictions and representations are denied and it is this absence of the usual content that indicates the presence of true horror. As discussed previously, the DBT’s sense of Authenticity implied through performativity and utterance make a powerful argument for their representation to be consumed as truth, even though it contains almost no information on the actual events.

The undermining of the accepted, legendary narrative is further apparent in The Ballad of Ira Hayes. Dissent against the dominant ideology has a precedent throughout the history of country and folk music; indeed, the survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima have previously been represented in the hugely famous song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”[8] recorded by both the granddaddy of Country, Johnny Cash and the Folk hero, BobDylan. The only one of the six-pictured flag-raisers to become a household name, Ira Hayes, was a member of the USMC and as a subject of that much-reproduced, lauded photograph he was subsequently sculpted and cast in bronze to take up permanent residence in Arlington National Cemetery.[9]
Ira Hayes came from a Native American family resident on the Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1942 at the age of 19. Like many young men of his generation his joining the Armed Forces would likely have been a largely economic decision. Conditions on the reservation were arid and the Gila River Native Americans (also known as Pima Indians) had been struggling for survival since the US government had restricted their water supply, rendering the cultivation of crops near impossible. Thus, Ira Hayes signed up to fight for the United States, prepared to be an “Honourable Warrior” [10] in order to secure the well being of his immediate family. Hayes subsequently fought in three Pacific campaigns between 1943 and 1945. After the iconic flag-raising image was taken on Iwo Jima, Hayes and his fellow survivors John Bradley and Rene Gagnon were used for PR and propaganda purposes, travelling with President Truman on the 7th Bond Tour a fundraising drive to obtain further support for the war effort. The quiet Ira, a man from a humble background, was uncomfortable with the attention afforded to him and found himself of particular interest to many due to his ethnic heritage.
This attention was to continue, with the three flag raising survivors pressed into playing themselves alongside John Wayne in the 1949 film “Sands of Iwo Jima”, and was still ongoing 8 years later when the transformation of the flag photograph into the huge bronze USMC statue was completed, and during it’s ceremonial unveiling.

Fig 7.

Ultimately this attention became too much for Ira Hayes, whose alcoholism led to frequent arrests for drunkenness and finally to his premature death at the age of 32, attributed to alcohol related exposure. Now, Ira Hayes would likely be diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic shock and would be able to access appropriate treatment, but things were different then, ex-soldiers were expected to soldier-on, in the words of Patterson Hood “Things were just that way”.[11]
Hayes was buried in Arlington Military Cemetery, in 1955, close to the bronze statue depicting him as a young Marine, forever frozen in that moment of supposed great success, a charade that Ira Hayes was never comfortable with, unable to forget about his fallen comrades.

I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they're not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.[12]

With this story in mind, Ira Hayes is a natural subject for a country song. As previously noted, Ira Hayes is the only one of the six flag raisers to become a household name. This legendary status has certainly been reinforced by the song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, originally performed by Johnny Cash. As seen in the previous essay, Cash, as a statesman of country music, is a figurehead for the notion of performative authenticity. This heavyweight position adds weight to the alternative version of the consequences of heroism depicted in the song (in opposition to the John Wayne film that featured Hayes himself) and simultaneously benefits from the association with Hayes as an outsider – reiterating Cash’s own position as the outsider of country music, the Man in Black rather than the rhinestone cowboy. Like the Drive-by Truckers’ song, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ narrative focus is on life beyond the events of the Battle of Iwo Jima, detailing Hayes’ treatment, first as a hero and subsequently as source of derision and amusement as his life spiralled into alcoholism. It is this social criticism that caused much of the controversy that surrounded the song - many radio stations refused it airplay. This refusal to acknowledge or publicise the stark account, the seemingly authentic story, is entirely indicative of the notion of cultural memory. America did not want to hear the Country truth, the Hollywood legend was far more palatable and thus a far more useful historical account in regards to the collective identity of Americans.
In response to this refusal of airplay, Cash self-funded a full page advertisement in Billboard Magazine[13], directly challenging this disregard of Hayes’ fate, repudiating those that sought to deny it due to vanity or political or financial/commercial related issues, the very issues that shape collective or cultural memory and present it as historical fact. Cultural memory is well understood to be a process that requires forgetting as much as it requires remembering. Through country music narrative, Cash reinstated a hidden, or forgotten story and this has subsequently overwritten the legend and been accepted as truth. In turn, Hollywood has been forced to readdress its own depiction of the Battle Of Iwo Jima through two Clint Eastwood directed films representing the two opposing military forces, the first, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) showing the battle from the US point of view and the second, Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) taking the Japanese position (and language – unusual for an American-made film). These ongoing, ever altering positions evolving over a 60 year period, readdressing the same supposedly historical story expose and make transparent the mechanisms that sustain cultural memory, even the perceived authentic space of the country song is subject to its own form of cultural memory - the rewrite.
I will conclude with a brief look at the Tom Russell cover version of The Ballad of Ira Hayes. It is introduced with two other seemingly unrelated stories of Native American men, positioning the fictionalized, idealized construct of the Indian Chief alongside the country singer in the ongoing battle of identity survival against the dominant ideology. He uses the emblem of the Native American Indian as an example of the authentic body yet simultaneously exposes the consequences of fetishisation (as discussed in the previous essay) and thus the need for ongoing performativity both for a sense of authenticity and within memorialization practise:
Bacon Rind was an old sage chief. He wore a regal hat.
I found him in a gas station, painted on one of those give-away glasses,
Said, “The Indians of Oklahoma, you can collect the entire set
Hunting Horse, Sequoia, A Dull Knife, I don’t have them all yet.
As I drive across this wild ground, looking for what wisdom I can find,
I thought of those gas-station glasses and a chief called Bacon-Rind.”[14]

The differences between the two versions of The Ballad of Ira Hayes are subtle, but tangible. Notably the number of battling soldiers detailed has been revised; La Farge’s poetic licence has been replaced with accuracy. Elsewhere the anger has been muted by switching the word “greed” for “deeds” and by the altered emphasis of moments created by different vocal nuances. Overall, the feeling of the Tom Russell version is one of resigned melancholia, to listen to it is an intensely sad experience – quite different to Cash’s palpable rage, augmented with military overtones in beat and instrumental score.

fig 8.

Ira Hayes is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in the shadow of the USMC Memorial, but through the performativity of remembrance and ongoing representation in cultural memory, his story and that of his comrades continues to haunt us like a thirsty ghost in a dry ditch, even without John Wayne ever really being on the Sands of Iwo Jima.

[1] This information was supplied by a family member and life-long John Wayne fan in general conversation. It is interestingly that this fact somehow contributes to both the legend of the US Marine Corps and the legend that is John Wayne. It is also worth noting that John Wayne’s star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame is black, black cement made from the black sands of Iwo Jima.

[2] Boys From Alabama, Patterson Hood

[3] As discussed in previous essay – Coal Miner’s Daughter.

[4] Patterson Hood – www.drivebytruckers.com

[5] Sands of Iwo Jima, Patterson Hood 2003

[6] Ibid

[7] Patterson Hood – www.drivebytruckers.com (accessed March 2008)

[8] Written by Peter Lafarge in 1964

[9] The other soldiers depicted are Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Rene Gagnon. Hayes is the soldier at the rear, whose out-stretched hands have already launched the flag into the air. Together, the likenesses of these six Marines have become the 78ft Marine Corp memorial statue, representing all Marines, past and present, reinforcing the iconic status of the photograph. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a proclamation that a U.S. Flag should fly from the memorial 24 hours a day — one of the few official sites where this is permitted. The current U.S. Flag, however, is not a factually accurate depiction of the flag that was raised over Mount Suribachi, as two stars have since been added for Alaska and Hawaii.

[10] A phrase reportedly used by Ira Hayes’ father and often used in relation to Hayes. The Ira Hayes Honourable Warrior Award is given by the Golfing charity, Pro-players Classic to an individual who exemplifies the attitude of giving back to their community. (http://proplayersclassic.com/irahayesaward.asp)

[11] Lyric from Sands Of Iwo Jima, Patterson Hood 2003

[12] Ira Hayes (http://www.irahhayes.org/ira.html)

[13] Johnny Cash -Billboard Magazine, August 22, 1964. "Ballad of Ira Hayes" is strong medicine. So is Rochester-Harlem-Birmingham and Vietnam...I've blown my horn now, just this once, then no more. Since I've said these things now, I find myself not caring if the record is programmed or not. I won't ask you to cram it down their throats. But...I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of "Ira Hayes”. Just one question: Why?” (http://maninblack.net/Museum-Ira_Hayes_Rebuttal.html)

[14] Tom Russell, Bacon Rind, Chief Seattle, The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

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