On paper, the November 1943 battle for Tarawa should have been no contest.
An atoll in the Gilbert Islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, Tarawa stood at the gateway of the U.S. “island-hopping” drive through the central Pacific toward the Philippines and ultimately toward Japan. An American invasion armada that included 17 aircraft carriers and 12 battleships shielded 35,000 troops, who faced fewer than 5,000 Japanese. In previous amphibious assaults, the United States had not faced serious opposition from the Japanese on the initial landing. But † at Tarawa — now known as the Republic of Kiribati — a well-armed, deeply entrenched Japanese force fought almost to the last man, and the United States made crucial mistakes, including poor tide calculations that left Marines struggling to cross 500 yards of reef under fire. †
For three days, both sides fought ferociously. And by the time it was over, more than 4,000 Japanese and 1,000 Marines were dead, including Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr. ’32. He was one of four Marines to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, three of them posthumously, for their actions during that battle.
For decades, the whereabouts of Bonnyman’s remains have been in doubt. Tarawa is no Normandy, with graves laid out neatly in U.S. military cemeteries. On this overcrowded, trash-littered Pacific island, construction projects routinely pull up parts of bodies. The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office maintains that Bonnyman’s body was “non-recovered.” The official Navy Web site has listed him as buried at sea; an authoritative book about the battle, Utmost Savagery , says his body lies in Oahu’s Punchbowl, the National Cemetery of the Pacific; and his Marine casualty card lists both a temporary grave used immediately after the battle and a “memorial” grave with a marker but no body.
But last November, researchers from the volunteer organization History Flight reported that they had determined the location on Tarawa of the remains of 139 of the 541 U.S. Marines whose bodies never were found, including those of Sandy Bonnyman. Mark Noah, the executive director of History Flight, says that Bonnyman’s body most likely lies under a dirt parking lot. Another private researcher, William Niven, has overlaid Google Earth maps and photographs on the invasion maps and concluded that the remains of Bonny-man and 39 other Marines are located in a different spot nearby, “just southeast and just inland of the old pier the Marines fought so hard to take.” And now, 65 years after Sandy Bonnyman’s death, family members have guarded hope for a U.S. government search that could lead to a proper burial.
Sandy Bonnyman lived a restless life, residing in Georgia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Texas, and New Mexico. He was born in Atlanta but grew up in Tennessee, where his father, also named Alexander, was president of the Blue Diamond Coal Co. in Knoxville. Bonnyman moved to New Jersey to complete high school at the Newman School in Lakewood before entering Princeton in 1928, becoming the first of at least six Bonnymans to attend Princeton. †
“Sandy was a very handsome guy, a pleasure to be with,” says his 99-year-old classmate John Harmon ’32, who still goes to work in his investment office in suburban Chicago twice a week. “We ate lunch in Commons and talked about women.” †
Bonnyman lettered in football and studied engineering, although “studied” may not be the right word to describe his time on campus, and he left Princeton after his sophomore year. Harmon recalls that after the crash of ’29, many young men left because their parents no longer could afford to send them to Princeton. But this was not what happened with Bonnyman. His oldest daughter, Fran Evans, now 74, says her father “had a math class he was supposed to finish, and left instead.” Harmon says Bonnyman wanted “to go to the service. He loved Princeton, but he wanted to do something for his country.” †
And that’s what he did. After leaving Princeton, Bonnyman entered the Army Air Corps as a Flying Cadet in June 1932. But he lasted only three months after being sent to the Preflight School at Randolph Field in Texas and was honorably discharged. Explanations about why vary — he either † “couldn’t fly in formation, or he buzzed the towers,” his daughter says. It was during his time as a cadet that he † met Josephine Bell of San Antonio at a debutante party; they married in February 1933, while Bonnyman was working for his father in the coal-mining business. In 1938 he acquired his own copper mine in the mountains of New Mexico and moved his growing family, which by 1941 included three daughters. Evans remembers a tall man who took his daughters to church on Sundays and “played tennis and had bird dogs and would go out and shoot.” One Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Fran watched him as he listened, agitated, to news on the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As a 31-year-old parent and worker in a war industry, Bonnyman could have qualified for a draft exemption. Instead, he joined the Marines as a private in July 1942. There was no long farewell to the family, though he would write letters and send postcards from his postings and would send a dollar when Fran told him that she “could do three chin-ups in a row.” This time, his military service began well; he served in combat during the 1942–43 Guadalcanal campaign, and in 1943 received an unusual field promotion to lieutenant. Months later, Bonnyman was on his way to Tarawa. †
Leon Cooper, 89, the writer and producer of the Military Channel documentary Return to Tarawa, was in November 1943 a young Navy ensign ferrying Marine assault troops to Tarawa’s beaches. After his early-morning “battle breakfast” on Nov. 20, the Navy began bombardment of the atoll. Landing craft dropped from the troopship, and the Marines scrambled into Cooper’s Higgins boat. The Japanese were waiting. “The guys were throwing up during the trip from fear and seasickness,” Cooper says. “In the smoke and explosions, I couldn’t see a damn thing. There were a number of boats hung up on the reef. I do remember landing, and that’s when I saw scores of these guys being cut to pieces. I had 30 guys in my boat; only half made it to the sea wall. There were wrecked boats all over.” A high-ranking Marine officer watching the events radioed for reinforcements, ending with the ominous words: “Issue in doubt.”
Once the surviving Marines reached the beach, they confronted a network of Japanese pillboxes, snipers, and artillery fire. Bonnyman was executive officer of the Second Battalion Shore Party, Eighth Marines, Second Marine Division, and he did not have direct combat responsibility. Nonetheless, he took on a leadership role in the chaos, assembling and leading an ad hoc assault team, as shown in the 1944 documentary With the Marines at Tarawa. “He was a good, likable guy, but he took no guff,” remembers Leroy Kisling, 85, of Modesto, Calif., then a sergeant who served with Bonnyman as † a demolition man on Tarawa. He recalls Bonnyman as a generous man who would share his officer’s liquor ration with the noncommissioned officers. “Wading into Tarawa, we all had our hands full. ... One of the guys had a mine detector and he thought it was too heavy, so he dropped it into the ocean. Bonnyman threatened to send the guy back under enemy fire to get it. His attitude was, ‘You’ve got a job to do; you’d better do it.’ ”†