REMAINS OF 36 MARINES, INCLUDING MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT, KILLED 70 YEARS AGO IN WWII BATTLE RECOVERED ON REMOTE PACIFIC ISLAND
A US charity has discovered the bodies of 36 American Marines in Kiribati, including a famous Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, at the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific during World War II.
The Associated Press reported that a ceremony was held this past Sunday in Pearl Harbor to mark their return.
History Flight has started identifying the remains, and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will complete the effort, the Marines said. The Marines plan to return the remains to their families after they've been identified.
More than 990 U.S. Marines and 30 sailors died during the three-day Battle of Tarawa in 1943. Japanese machine gun fire killed scores of Marines when their boats got stuck on the reef at low tide during the U.S. amphibious assault. Americans who made it to the beach faced brutal hand-to-hand combat.
The Marines invaded Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll in November 1943, where more than 1,000 Americans died and the entire Japanese garrison of 4,800 was wiped out.
History Flight director Mark Noah said a combination of archival research of original burial records, radar searches, and interviews with locals had turned up a number of graves since 2007. He told Pacific Beat this latest discovery is the largest yet, and honors a vow to return the fallen to home soil.
"All of the individuals that died at the battle of Tarawa, or in WWII in general, had the reasonable expectation that if they were to sacrifice their life in the service of their country that they would have the option to be repatriated and buried according to the wishes of their family," he said. "That's on the outside of one of the cemeteries there, an epitaph that said 'Rest, warriors, rest / Against the day of journeying forth / Tender hands shall lift thee out / To home soil waiting'."
The remains of the Marines were discovered after a four-month excavation on Betio island, part of Kiribati's Tarawa Atoll, in a culmination of nine years of research. Mr Noah said 18 of the 36 sets of remains have been formally identified, including what are almost certainly those of Lieutenant Alexander 'Sandy' Bonnyman Jr, who posthumously received America's highest military
accolade, the Medal of Honour, for conspicuous gallantry. "Lieutenant Bonnyman's teeth were very distinctive, we compared his dental restorations against over 50,000 other individuals and there was only one match," he said.
First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was among the men found in May in Cemetery 27 on the tiny Pacific Ocean atoll of Betio in Kiribati, according to Mark Noah, the director of History Flight, an organization which helps recover military members deemed missing in action. Noah notes that more than 1,000 Americans died fighting Japanese forces in Kiribati, in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. The missing Marines were declared “unrecoverable” in 1949 by the Quartermaster General’s Office, according to the group. But a 10-year, multi-million dollar effort by History Flight culminated in the historic, and emotional, find in May.
Among those on scene for the recovery was Bonnyman’s grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans. “The location of Cemetery 27 has been one of Tarawa’s most challenging historical puzzles. History Flight’s discovery and recovery of the site is a testament to the tenacity and professionalism with which it has searched for all the missing Tarawa Marines,” Evans said. “Our family, including Lt. Bonnyman’s two surviving daughters — my mother and aunt — is deeply grateful to History Flight for accomplishing what nobody else could for more than seven decades.”
None of the bodies have been officially identified, but DNA comparisons and other records will be used to do so. Bonnyman was one of three military men killed on Tarawa to earn a posthumous Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor in action. He was the final one to be found. Bonnyman’s remains will be buried in his family plot in Knoxville, Tenn., where a public funeral will be held. Other bodies remain on the island, thousands of miles from American soil. The recovery effort continues. Mr Noah said the remains would be repatriated this month, with the outstanding unidentified remains identified using a combination of dental records and DNA comparison with surviving relatives. “Although we have dental matches to known missing Tarawa Marines for more than half of the recovered individuals, we are seeking DNA reference samples from families of the Tarawa missing,” Ed Huffine, the board secretary for History Flight said in a statement. “We plan to have all of these recovered heroes identified by the end of the summer.”
Mr Bonnyman's citation says he led a series of assaults when Marines stormed the island, finally falling when he led a successful attack against a bombproof installation held by 150 Japanese soldiers that was hampering the advance.
The attack on the bunker was filmed by US Marine Corps photographer Norman Hatch whose documentary of the battle, With the Marines at Tarawa, won an Academy Award in 1945 and contains one of the only pieces of footage of a Medal of Honour recipient in the midst of achieving the decoration.
As well as the Medal of Honour, Lieutenant Bonnyman was awarded posthumously the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation with one blue star, the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with two bronze stars for Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Below is the full Medal of Honor citation provided by the U.S. government:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20-22 November 1943. Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day.
Determined to effect an opening in the enemy's strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance.
Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement. Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded.
His family had thought his body would never be found, having been told he was buried at sea. He is the only one of four Medal of Honour recipients on Tarawa not to have returned home. A statement on History Flight's website said Mr Bonnyman's daughters had decided to have his remains interred in a family plot in Knoxville, Tennessee, next to his parents, with a public funeral service planned.