How Could I Feel Like a Hero When Only Five Men in My Platoon of 45 Survived?

Ira Hayes? James Bradley? John Bradley? Rene Gagnon? Fictionalized?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the men who appeared in the famous flag-raising photograph taken on Iwo Jima during WWII was invited to the White House when he returned to the United States. The following 2005 news article describes a heart-rending comment that was supposedly said by that soldier, Ira Hayes [LBH]:

When Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, called Hayes a hero, the Marine said, “How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?”

I find it hard to believe that a quotation like this would be reported in the 1940s. Perhaps a newspaper during the Vietnam War or the Korean War would publish a quote like this, but times were different during World War 2. When Hayes visited the White House the Allies were still at war with Japan and an invasion of Japan with horrible attrition was thought to be imminent.

A very similar quote did appear in the bestselling book “Flags of Our Fathers” of 2000 that was later made into a movie, but the book does not claim that the words were said at the White House.  Perhaps Ira Hayes said it many years after the war or maybe it is a summary of thoughts he expressed to friends. Could you determine if this quotation is accurate?

Quote Investigator:  This is a fascinating question that QI will be happy to explore for you. Remarkably, the Boston Daily Globe of May 14, 1945 contains an article in which Ira Hayes is quoted saying words nearly identical to the ones given above [BDG]. The event described in the article is not a visit to the White House. Instead, it is a rally in Boston at which three of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers appeared. (Thanks to top researcher Joel S. Berson for verifying this citation on microfilm.)

In May of 1945 the Allies were contemplating Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan, and the development of the atomic bomb was still a top secret. Maintaining Allied morale was very important to government planners and others. The editors of the Boston Daily Globe still published the quotation. The invasion plan was never fully implemented because Japan surrendered in August of 1945.

Here are selected citations in reverse chronological order. The words attributed to Ira Hayes in “Flags of Our Fathers” differ from the words in the Boston Daily Globe in 1945, but the gist of the quotation is very similar [FOF]:

Later, back in the United States, Ira was hailed as a hero but he didn’t see it that way. “How can I feel like a hero,” he asked, “when I hit the beach with two hundred and fifty buddies and only twenty-seven of us walked off alive?” Iwo Jima haunted Ira, and he tried to escape his memories in the bottle. He died ten years, almost to the day, after the photo was taken.

The casualties at the platoon level are not mentioned in this version of the lamentation. It is possible that Ira Hayes provided a similar quote to more than one reporter. The book does not provide a citation.

A 1999 collection of pieces written by famed literary stylist John Updike includes an article, “Descent of an Image”, in which he traces the imagery of the iconic photograph of the flag-raising through multiple manifestations in the cultural slipstream.  Updike also discusses Hayes and includes the quote [JUP]:

The best-known survivor, Pima Indian Ira Hayes, died at thirty-two of alcoholism, as a kind of protest against his own post-war celebrity. “How could I feel like a hero,” he asked, “when only five men in my platoon of forty-five survived, when only twenty-seven men in my company of two hundred fifty managed to escape death or injury?” His dead “good buddies” haunted him: “They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.” At the 1954 ceremony dedicating the Iwo Jima monument in Washington, he was asked, “How do you like the pomp and circumstances?” He answered, “I don’t.” Three months later, he was dead.

Events and quotations from different times and places are tightly interwoven in this passage. The compressed narrative account may have lead to confusion. Some later writers began claiming that the target quote was spoken at the White House or at the Iwo Jima monument dedication. Perhaps these statements are based on misreading Updike or some other similarly compact account.

In 1995 two historians, Parker Bishop Albee, Jr. and Keller Cushing Freeman, published a careful study of the two flag raising events on Iwo Jima. They presented the Hayes quote [SHS] and provided a precise date for the appearance of the words in the Boston Daily Globe newspaper:

Clearly, Hayes did refuse the title of hero, however. “How can I feel like a hero,” he added, “when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury.” There were undeniable signs that the young Marine felt remorse, if not guilt, that he had survived to be heralded a hero while so many of his comrades never left Iwo Jima alive.

The final excerpt is from the article in the Globe that describes the 1945 event in Boston centered on the three survivors of the flag-raising. Their names were: Rene Gagnon of Manchester, New Hampshire, Ira “The Chief” Hayes of Bapchule, Arizona, and John Bradley of Appleton, Wisconsin [BDG]:

But these men will never forget their many friends who will never enjoy the fruits of the victory.  “How can I feel like a hero,” said Hayes, “when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury.”

The newspaper account contains a typo: the word “or” in the excerpt above actually appears as “of” in the newspaper text.  Thanks very much for your question. Your skepticism is understandable. In this case, evidence indicates that the quote was published in 1945, but it was not spoken to the President in the White House.

(This question was inspired by a discussion on the ADS mailing list. Many thanks to the participants. Special thanks to Jonathan Lighter, Department of English, University of Tennessee, Knoxville for initiating the discussion.)

[LBH] 2005 February 24, Long Beach Press-Telegram, “Flag Waves in Memory, Honor”, Column by Tom Hennessy, Page A2, Long Beach, California. (NewsBank)

[BDG] 1945 May 14, Boston Daily Globe, “Hub Throng Thrills 3 Iwo Heroes: Turnout in Rain Inspiring, Say Flag Raisers” by Hy Hurwitz Page 9, Column 7, Globe Pub. Co. (Verified on microfilm by Joel S. Berson)

[FOF] 2000, “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley with Ron Powers, Page 12, Bantam Books, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper)

[JUP] 1999, “More Matter: Essays and Criticism” by John Updike, “Descent of an Image”, Page 678, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper)

[SHS] 1995, “Shadow of Suribachi : Raising the Flags on Iwo Jima” by Parker Bishop Albee, Jr. and Keller Cushing Freeman, Page 112, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper)

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