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In World War II, 17-year-old Ira Hamilton Hayes, a shy Pima Indian who has never set foot outside his tribal reservation in Arizona, enlists in the Marine Corps. Though most of his white companions either deride or ignore him, he strikes up a deep and lasting friendship with another marine, Jim Sorenson. In February of 1945 the two buddies are among the five marines who raise the U. S. flag on Mt. Suribachi during the bloody fighting at Iwo Jima. Shortly thereafter Sorenson is killed by enemy fire, and a stunned and heartbroken Ira is returned to the United States to take part in a war bond drive. Disturbed at being singled out as a national hero, and feeling unworthy of the role, the simple Indian turns to whisky for courage. His drinking becomes a scandal, and he is returned to his unit in disgrace. Following the war, anonymity eludes him as his tribal chief persuades him to go to Washington to seek funds for an irrigation project. There he begins drinking again and lands in jail. The dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, inspires him to pull himself together, and he returns home to work on the reservation; but he is shattered when his people do not elect him to the tribal council. Sneaking away with a supply of liquor, he seeks refuge on a lonely mountainside. There he dies of exposure at the age of 32.