Arizona post honors small-town heroes

In the small Native American community of Sacaton, Ariz., a memorial pays tribute to two fallen hometown heroes.

Ira Hayes, one of the six American troops depicted in the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph, was from Sacaton, which has a population of 1,584 and is the capital of the Gila River Indian Community. Hayes, a Marine, became an instant American hero when the photograph was published. He returned from World War II and played himself in a John Wayne film, "Sands of Iwo Jima," along with two of the other flag-raisers. Hayes died a short time later at the age of 32.

The second Sacaton hero is Matthew B. Juan, believed to be the first Native American and Arizonan to die in World War I. On May 28, 1918, his unit attacked the Germans in Cantigny, France, in the first American offensive against German-occupied territory. During the advance, Juan was killed by enemy fire.

The memorial preserving their memories would not exist if it weren’t for Oscar Urrea, a member of Ira H. Hayes Post 84 in Sacaton. The park features life-size bronze statues of both Hayes and Juan, along with plaques and monuments honoring the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, POW-MIAs, Native Americans and others.

"We needed a place of honor, tranquility for the veterans, especially World War II ones so they could feel at home," Urrea said. "It turned out to be just that. A lot of visitors come to look at the monuments and remember that freedom is not free."

Once Urrea obtained the blessings of Hayes’ family and the governing council, he designed the memorials and the park’s layout. After all, Urrea studied fine arts at Eastern Arizona College and Western New Mexico University, and he knew what he wanted.

High on his wish list were stones from Iwo Jima to represent the six men who raised the American flag.

"I asked the Japanese government if they were willing to give me six stones to honor those men," Urrea said. "They wrote back and said, ‘No, we cannot grant that wish.’ So I approached Sen. (Dennis) DeConcini and with his guidance and leadership, we acquired those stones. A delegation from Japan came and presented me the six stones, and they are permanently enshrined in the memorial. In a letter accompanying the stones, the Japanese government wrote, ‘You will be the first and last person to receive stones form the mountain.’ So I was quite honored and thankful."

It wasn’t just Urrea who played a major role in the project. The post was instrumental in raising funds. Bake sales, T-shirt sales and other fundraisers netted between $25,000 and $30,000 for the memorial over a 10-year period.

The post continues to take an active role in the memorial today – 11 years after it was unveiled. Each year, the post hosts a commemoration event on or close to the anniversary of the Iwo Jima flag-raising: Feb. 23.

Post member Leonard Enos credits then-post commander Lance Lewis for his role.

"Lewis was the one who got this thing going," Enos said. "He was the commander at the time, and we sat down and talked about doing something special for the event. And we talked about different things. And it started out as a small recognition thing that grew to a major recurring thing. I’m sure he is pleased with how it has evolved into a major event."

While crowds turn out each February for the ceremony, the memorial reminds the local community every day of its connections to heroes.

"The community members are all proud of our members who secured the island of Iwo Jima and (Hayes’) connection to the flag-raising and are very proud of him," Enos said. "A lot of veterans come in and show respect for Mr. Hayes and the other veterans who never came back from Iwo Jima who secured our freedoms."