The recently identified remains of a Marine hailed for his bravery in battle are heading home 72 years after he was killed on a remote Pacific atoll during World War II.
First Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman died at age 33 while leading Marines against entrenched Japanese forces during a three-day fight for the strategically important island of Tarawa in 1943. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1947, but his remains weren’t found until earlier this year by a nonprofit organization called History Flight which has been searching for the remains of missing servicemen.
A bugler played taps and a color guard rendered honors Thursday for Bonnyman during a departure ceremony in Honolulu. Bonnyman’s family plans to lay him to rest Sunday at the same Knoxville, Tenn., cemetery where his parents were buried.
“I feel I’m carrying on that mission that they started in 1944,” Clay Bonnyman Evans, Bonnyman’s grandson, said of his great-grandparents. “Here we are in 2015. All those years later it’s being done. He’s going to be buried exactly where they wanted him.”
More than 990 U.S. Marines and 30 sailors died in the Battle of Tarawa. 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.
Only 17 of the 3,500 Japanese troops survived. Of 1,200 Korean slave laborers Japan brought to the island, just 129 lived.
Bonnyman led his Marines over a pier to the beach, where they used flamethrowers and demolitions to destroy installations and attack a bombproof shelter that was protecting about 150 Japanese soldiers. The Marines flushed out more than 100 of the occupants into the open, where they were shot down. Bonnyman killed three attackers before he was mortally wounded. The U.S. secured the island the day Bonnyman died.
His Medal of Honor citation noted his “dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership through three days of unremitting, violent battle.” It said he “inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance.”
The U.S. quickly buried the thousands of dead on the tiny atoll, about 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii. But the graves were soon disturbed as the Navy urgently built a landing strip to prepare to attack the next Pacific island on their path to Japan.
Bonnyman was among 36 unidentified servicemen History Flight exhumed in Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati earlier this year. The remains were brought to Hawaii for identification in July.
The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Monday it had identified Bonnyman using dental records and other evidence.