Survivors who knew First Lt. Bonnyman say he was a born leader, a loyal friend, and so courageous as to be almost reckless.
At 31, with three children and a copper mine, he didn’t have to join the war effort. He didn’t have to lead an assault up the heavily fortified bunker where scores of Japanese “rikusentai” had pinned down U.S. Marines on the narrow sand strip known as Red Beach 3. Once on top, my grandfather held back enemy troops as they poured from the bunker, until he fell. The Marines took the bunker, and after that, the outcome of the Pacific war’s most vicious battle to date was no longer in doubt.
Few Americans remember Tarawa. But among those who do, Bonnyman’s name is revered. “Bonnyman’s Bunker” still stands. And buried somewhere on tiny, crowded Betio, the island where the battle took place, lie my grandfather’s remains, along with those of as many as 300 other American dead and many Japanese.
I never doubted I would someday make pilgrimage to Tarawa. When I learned this summer that the U.S. government’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) would send an archaeological expedition in search of lost Marines, including sites that might contain my grandfather’s remains, I knew that time had come.
Hot, humid, and featureless except for shanty-type dwellings and coconut palms, Betio is strewn with garbage. Its beaches and remnants of the battle – bunkers, hulking Japanese gun emplacements – are spattered with human feces. It is nobody’s idea of idyllic. Yet I’ve never made an more unforgettable journey.
After a few hours watching the JPAC team slowly dig and sift, I went in search of ghosts. I spent hours exploring Bonnyman’s Bunker, inside and out, the dark, hot rooms beneath crumbling concrete and rusty rebar ribs. I did not find my grandfather there.
But looking back toward the bunker from the approximate location of Red Beach 3, where he came ashore, my heart began to race. Later, looking to shore across 800 yards of reef, where heavily laden Marines had waded into roiling smoke and the cacophony of enemy fire, I shivered in the tropical sun.
Asked by friends if I felt my grandfather’s spirit on Tarawa, I say no, not as an individual presence. But I did sense the unimaginable sorrow and terror and bravery that must have coiled through every Marine, from 33-year-old Lt. Bonnyman to the 18-year-old looking to him for courage.
JPAC departed Tarawa in September without having excavated sites where my grandfather might lie. They returned with the remains of two individuals, found earlier by a local citizen, that appeared to be Americans. The team also prepared remains found in a mass grave of Japanese soldiers for their likely return to the Japanese government. A nother mission by JPAC is planned for 2011.
Finding one man’s bones, even on such a tiny island, is a daunting task. And it may come to pass that Sandy Bonnyman sleeps undisturbed until the mighty, indifferent Pacific swallows the hallowed sands of Tarawa. But as the only descendant of my grandfather to have walked there, I know he sleeps in peace.
Clay Bonnyman Evans is a writer living in Niwot, Colo., with his family. He is working on a book related to his grandfather’s life.