Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was one of about 1,100 Marines killed in 1943, during the Battle of Tarawa, the last remaining Japanese stronghold in WW II.
Bonnyman, a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor — America’s highest award for valor in combat — entered the Marines as a private and was promoted to 1st lieutenant after he fought in the Guadalcanal Campaign.
His remains were among the hundreds declared “unrecoverable” by the U.S. quartermaster general in 1949, according to an article in the Sante Fe New Mexican.
“When his battalion landed on the Tarawa atoll on Nov. 20, 1943, they encountered some 5,000 Japanese soldiers dug into heavily armed fortifications. Over the course of three days, Bonnyman organized demolition teams against the Japanese installations,” the article said.
A fellow Marine speaks fondly of his friend who was nicknamed ‘Sandy.’ He says, “Sandy voluntarily led a group of flamethrowers in the taking of this last stronghold.” A Japanese soldier shot and killed Bonnyman, just before the Marines secured the island.
The company History Flight has been dedicated to recovering the remains of American service members who died in the Pacific islands during World War II. Thanks to this privately funded company Bonnyman’s family can now finally make preparations to bring him home.
The recovery mission has been largely centered on locating lost cemeteries on tiny Betio island, where the battle of Tarawa was fought. During an excavation of the site in May, Bonnyman’s grandson helped with the dig, cleaning bones at the lab, sifting through sand and recording the progress with a video camera. But the moment the archaeologist announced she had spotted Bonnyman’s distinctive gold teeth, Clay Evans says he dropped the camera.
“I was really overwhelmed,” he said. “His physical remains matched what we would expect. We were very confident it was him, and we do now have a legal dental match completed.”
An amazing end to a story about an exceptionally dedicated military man. An honorably discharged military veteran, Bonnyman was exempt from the draft and could have chosen not to join the effort to win World War II. But at age 32, he enlisted in the Marines after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“I just remember that he was gone. I remember waiting for him to come home for Christmas, but he never got home,” said his youngest daughter. Now she says Bonnyman will be laid to rest at the family cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.