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Iconic Iwo Jima Flag-Raising Monument, Depicting Pima Indian Marine Ira H. Hayes, Is on the Auction Block

A story on the auction of the original iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising monument, depicting Pima Marine Ira H. Hayes.

On Friday, February 22, at 1 p.m./Eastern, Bonhams of New York is holding an auction to sell a collection of WWII items and military memoriabilia entitled, “World War II: The Pacific Theater.” (For a special photo gallery with photographs of items from the collection being auctioned by Bonhams on February 22, click here.) Among the array of items to be sold is the original Iwo Jima monument, a 20-foot-tall, 10,000 pound statue created by Felix de Weldon which depicts the scene captured in a famous photograph by James Rosenthal of the raising of the American flag by U.S Marines at the battle of Iwo Jima. Among the six soldiers depicted was Private First Class Ira H. Hayes, Pima, of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona.

According to a press release, Bonhams calls the Iwo Jima monument “a symbol of wartime bravery and national unity” which was unveiled on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. in November 1945. The auction company estimates the value of the monument between $1.2 and $1.8 million.

Though the Iwo Jima monument is best known for its secondary existence as the eighty ton bronze Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, the monument on Friday's auction block in New York is the original cast stone version created by Navy artist De Weldon. 

In addition to the monument, WWII enthusiasts can also bid on such items as maritime paintings, ship models, battle souvenirs, theater art, propaganda material and soldiers’ personal effects. 

Other items of significance include two battle worn flags from the USS Arizona that the Navy sent to Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd’s widow to be draped over his coffin, and the peace treaty signed on the USS Missouri connected to the atomic bomb drop at Hiroshima.

A special item of American Indian significance is the bronze bust of Admiral J.J. (Jocko) Clark, U.S.N., Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Jocko, who was the first Native American to graduate from the United States Naval Academy, in 1917, who would then go on to command the carriers Suwannee and Yorktown in World War II.

Of all the artifacts and memorabilia originating from such provinces as Japan, China, Burma, New Guinea and the Philippines as well as the United States, approximately thirty percent of the pieces have been displayed in museums.

NWDNS-80-G-413988; ARC Identifier: 520748); General Photographic File of the Department of Navy, 1943 - 1958; General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1804 - 1958; Record Group 80; National Archives.

The Rosenthal AP photo. Photograph of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, 02/23/1945

A War Monument Was First a Photograph

Though De Weldon had originally created the monument depicting the Marines raising the American flag at the battle of Iwo Jima, even more original was Associated Press photographer’s Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph from which De Weldon’s monument was created. And on the morning of the fourth day of the Battle of Iwo Jima at the top of Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal captured a moment that would become world famous.

When Rosenthal, a photojournalist attached to the Marines, arrived at the battle scene, he discovered from Sgt. Lou Lowey, a photographer from Leatherneck Magazine, that the first American flag had already been raised at the mountain summit. However, a photo opportunity for Rosenthal was not lost. The Marine’s command, dissatisfied with the first small flag raised, ordered a larger flag to be put in its place.

When Rosenthal was unable to locate the first group of Marines, he turned his attention to the six soldiers raising the second, larger American flag, among them was Marine PFC Hayes.

After taking the famous photograph of the flag being raised, Rosenthal, not yet knowing what he had, rushed down the mountain to send his film to AP photo editor John Bodkin. The picture which was taken on Friday February 23, 1945, was on the front page of Sunday newspapers on February 25, 1945 and would become one of U.S. history’s most iconic wartime photographs.

From Photo to Statue, the Work of Sculptor Felix de Weldon

When a young Naval Painter’s Mate First Class Felix de Weldon received the Iwo Jima photograph in a military wireless picture receiver, he asked his commander if he could make a model of the flag raising. After receiving approval, De Weldon constructed the first model with a mixture of floor and ceiling wax gathered from the kitchens.

Due to his craftsmanship of the sculpture, De Weldon was transferred to the Naval Annex in Arlington where he then made four plaster versions of the flag-raising, one of which was given to President Truman and is now displayed at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Though De Weldon was eventually discharged, he continued his quest to complete a 20-foot-tall monument with the blessing of the Navy. In support, then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal (who had himself witnessed the flag raising) gave congressional approval for the acquisition of the statue. With support, De Weldon acquired a large studio on Randolf and 18th in D.C. and built the monument.

After De Weldon constructed the monument, it lived a short career of only two years, having stood outside the Navy Building (now the Federal Reserve) from 1945 to 1947. The monument was then moved back to De Weldon’s studio to make way for a new building after an approximate one-year trip to Quantico from which De Weldon copied the scene onto the base's limestone entrance.

After it was returned to the studio, the monument sat under a tarp, and was not uncovered until 1980 when it was re-discovered and rescued by Rodney Hilton Brown, an enthusiast of WWII memorabilia and associate of De Weldon. After Brown discovered the monument, though he wanted it, he was unable to take it away immediately because it weighed 10,000 pounds and shipping was cost prohibitive.

According to Tom Lamb, Director of the Book Department at Bonhams, “During the time the original monument sat in De Weldon’s studio, he made three casts. When the larger Arlington monument began to take over his studio, he moved the original outside and covered it well. I have photographs of when the monument was discovered, and it was in remarkably good condition for 30 years under a tarp,” he said.

Within a year’s time, Brown was able to move the monument to a storage unit and after several years, he formally purchased the memorial from the owner and decided to restore it. He shipped it to a sculpture house in Princeton, New Jersey in 1990; after restoration, it went to New York City's Intrepid Museum in 1995 – 50 years after it was created, where more than 1 million people viewed it eachyear. It stayed at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum for 12 years and was then moved into storage for seven years until they removed it to sell the monument today.

Ira Hayes

In addition to De Weldon’s efforts to create a memorial, the Treasury’s War Loan Department had a hollow traveling version of the monument created and had the three surviving flag raisers tour the United States as heroes -- they became overnight celebrities. Due to this effort, the Iwo Jima flag-raising image helped to sell enough war bonds to erase half the national debt incurred during the war.

An original photo of Pima Marine Ira H. Hayes with a copy of the Rosenthal photo, from the Bonhams collection (Valery Sorokin).

Of the six men that were depicted in the famous photograph taken by Rosenthal, three of the men, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block and Michael Strank were killed in battle. The three remaining survivors that traveled the country as part of the War Department's efforts were John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Hayes. 

Hayes, an American Indian and member of the Pima Tribe, grew up the son of a poor farming family and had joined the Marine Corps in 1943 to support the United States in a time of war and was not prepared for celebrity status.

According to the American Legion’s Ira H. Hayes Post 84 website, Hayes life in the aftermath of his achieving celebrity status was riddled with problems.

“Ira did not think of himself as a hero as he was alive and believed that the real heroes where those brave comrades that gave their lives in battle. Ira discovered that his fame was rewarded not with job offers but with fancy dinners and drinks,” the post's website says.

In the years to come, Hayes reportedly went to great lengths to avoid visitors who came to see "the Indian who raised the flag." During patriotic veterans' and military ceremonies, Hayes would sit in his car watching from across the road to avoid unwanted attention.

In 1954, 10 weeks after attending the ceremony in Washingto,n D.C. for the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial, Ira Hayes died. 

To date, much has been made to honor the contributions of Ira Hayes including the song “Ira Hayes” by Johnny Cash and the 2006 Golden Globe- and Academy Award- nominated motion picture Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood (First Nations actor Adam Beach portrayed Hayes) . In addition, and on each year on the weekend closest to the date of the original raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, the Ira H. Hayes American Legion Post 84 holds an Iwo Jima ceremonial event at the Ira H. Hayes and Mathew B. Juan Memorial Park in Sacaton, Arizona (for information on the event, click here.)

Selling a Monument

Considering the Iwo Jima flag-raising monument is arguably an icon that represents the sacrifices and American pride displayed by U.S. military servicemembers, many may wonder how such an artifact could find its way to the auction block.

According to Lamb, Mr. Brown says the time is right for the monument to move forward into different hands.

“Mr. Brown is 70, he has had 60 years of collecting and he decided now is a good time. Every collector comes to the end of their collecting life and he has three other major collections, so he will re-concentrate his efforts on those and he will make those collections even better than they are now,” says Lamb. “He’s a very nice guy, an old-fashioned gentleman really.”

According to a statement made by Brown in the introduction of the Bonhams auction catalog, “Now the time has come for others to enjoy these relics that filled my life so many decades. Many are rare and unique some are truly national treasures. But it’s time to “Let Go.”

“In grateful remembrance to those who have died for our country, I am donating 10 percent of the auction proceeds to the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. Malcolm Barber, group CEO of Bonhams has agreed to do the same for my vendors commissions. This act of generosity, Bonhams sponsorship of the Marine Corps Navajo Code Talkers in the 2012 Veterans Day parade and the tireless efforts of Bonhams staff to make this auction of success are the kind of things we never forget. They remind us once again of the momentous struggle a generation ago when Britain and America stood together to face the axis powers.” 

For further information on the auction, including a full catalog of the items in the collection, click here.