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MoH Marine's remains recovered 71 years after Battle of Tarawa

July 2, 2015 (Photo Credit: Clay Bonnyman Evans/History Flight, Inc.)

The grandson of one of the Corps' most ferocious officers killed in the World War II Battle of Tarawa will finally bring his grandfather's remains home, along with those of dozens of other fallen Marines.

More than 70 years ago, Marine 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman, Jr. was determined to blast a hole through the deeply entrenched enemy on the tiny island of Betio in the Republic of Kiribati.

With fellow Marines pinned down on the beach during the November 1943 amphibious invasion of the Tarawa Atoll, the 33-year-old led a small engineering team into unfriendly territory to repeatedly assault enemy fortifications. He succeeded, but was mortally wounded while fending off an enemy counterattack.

Bonnyman's "dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership" led to his posthumous award of the Medal of Honor, according to his citation.

Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman, Jr. was a Marine who was killed in action during the Battle of Tarawa in World War II. A combat engineer, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the strategically important assault on a Japanese bombproof shelter during the Battle of Tarawa.
Photo Credit: DoD

Yet the remains of Bonnyman and approximately 40 other Marines killed in action during the battle disappeared as their impromptu burial trench, known as Cemetery 27, was lost.

An American Graves Registration Service team exhumed and repatriated about 500 Marines from the small island in the Central Pacific in 1946, but simply could not find Cemetery 27. Its occupants were officially declared "unrecoverable" by the Quartermaster General's Office in 1949.

"They must have been buried in all the confusion," Clay Bonnyman Evans, Bonnyman's grandson, told Marine Corps Times. "In all probability the grave markers were run over when the seabees came ashore."

For 70 years the lost graves of Tarawa remained a mystery, but now the fallen Marines — including Bonnyman — are coming home.

"History Flight is extremely pleased to announce the discovery and recovery of historic Cemetery 27 on Betio Island as part of its 10-year, multi-million-dollar effort to recover hundreds of Marines lost to history, their nation and their families in 1943," said founder and director Mark Noah in a press release Sunday.

The non-profit, dedicated to finding and recovering the remains of 84,000 missing American service members, located the burial trench in 2011 and began excavation in March. They have since recovered the remains of at least three dozen fallen Marines.

Working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, History Flight recovered the remains of at least 120 troops from Betio previously believed to be unrecoverable. They will conduct a forensic review of the remains from Cemetery 27 this month.

"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," History Flight board secretary Ed Huffine said in a news release.

"We plan to have all of these recovered heroes identified by the end of the summer," Huffine said.

Clay Bonnyman Evans never got to meet his grandfather, but grew up in admiration of his legacy.

When History Flight began calling families to obtain DNA samples of the Marines unaccounted for at Tarawa, Evans jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the group and flew to Betio to assist in excavations.

"They're a small non-profit, but these guys have done what no one else could do," Evans said. "This is a group that knows how to get things done."

Evans assisted the History Flight archaeological team in excavating Cemetery 27, which was located under a parking lot on Betio.

Evans knew that his grandfather had distinctive dental work, including gold teeth. He said he was breathless when Kristin Baker, the History Flight Recovery Team leader, called him over to examine the teeth on an exposed cranium.

"It's gold," Baker told him.

Evans said it's very likely that the remains are those of the Medal of Honor recipient, but legal verification is still required.

The remains of the three dozen Marines are being transported to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency's laboratory at Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii, where a team of specially trained dentists and other experts will work to authenticate their identities.

"We are very grateful for the efforts of Mark Noah and History Flight for the recovery of these Marines lost during the Battle of Tarawa," DPAA director Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington said in a press release.

"This is a tremendous example of how private-public partnerships can contribute to our accounting efforts both now and in the future."

After more than seven decades, Bonnyman's remains will finally travel the almost 7,000 miles to his birthplace in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he will be buried next to his parents and three siblings.

Bonnyman's family intends to conduct a public burial ceremony in late September to celebrate his return home.

"This has been simply incredible," Evans said. "Our family is so, so grateful."

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