In 1945, the US captured the tiny of island of Iwo Jima, from Japan. The highest point on Iwo Jima is Mount Suribachi, and it is on this summit five Marines and a navy Corpsman put up the American flag.
Ira Hayes (1923-1955) was one of these men, recorded forever, on the far left, by Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo:
Alas, after the war, Hayes suffered from alcoholism and was arrested many times over. He probably died, horribly, from alcohol poisoning. The song contrasts Hayes the returning war hero, with his domestic reality. You see, Hayes was an American Indian. Settled in Arizona, Pima Indians farmed until the white man basically took away their water with a dam.
Since these times, Hayes has been recognized as an American hero. Not just by Johnny Cash (whose 1964 album, Bitter Tears, was all about American Indians) but many others have recorded this song (written by one Peter LaFarge), including Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Movies like The Outsiders (with Tony Curtis) and more recently, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers are about or reference Hayes. Hayes is buried at the military cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery.