Clay Bonnyman Evans knew all there was to know about his grandfather though the two had never met until that moment under several feet of crushed coral rock on a remote island in the Pacific.
Evans was polite when requesting the anthropology brush he would use to sweep some of the dust from his grandfather’s remains when they were found in May on the Tawara Atoll.
“My whole life I grew up with that medal on the wall and the citation,” Evans said, holding back tears. “He’s always been my hero.”
Evans, referring to the Medal of Honor his grandfather earned posthumously for his heroism in World War II’s Battle of Tarawa, had reached the end of a five-year journey. His grandfather's story actually stretched back more than seven decades, to November 22, 1943, when 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. led his fellow Marines to charge a bunker that Japanese soldiers had managed to employ as a linchpin to hold back a relentless offensive.
“He was the one who on his own stood up there at the leading edge and was able to hold the surging Japanese back long enough for the Marines behind him to come up and finish the attack and take the bunker,” Evans said. “The language they use is ‘extraordinary.’”
Bonnyman and more than 1,200 Americans were killed in action in the three-day battle, but there was more land to be taken and no time to collect the scores of bodies.
His remains would be placed in a shallow grave, marked with haste, and soon be one of the more than 500 Marines on the island deemed unrecoverable by the military. It was a time when recovering the numerous war dead was without the technological advances and priority it holds in modern conflicts, Evans said.
“I guess somebody might think it's ghoulish, but I don't know,” Evans said as archaeologist Kristen Baker continued excavating the remains. “We’re not just after this man. Every single guy who is missing is just as important as every other guy.”
That’s a tall order on the Tawara Atoll. The battle resulted in more lost remains of U.S. servicemen than in all of the Vietnam War -- in the cemetery where Bonnyman was found, researchers would recover another 35 Marines.
Searching for the Lost
Nine years ago, Mark Noah was in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., researching lost aircraft when he stumbled upon a troubling report that detailed the effort to recover remains from the Battle of Tarawa.
It concluded that only 49 percent of those known to have been buried on the island were recovered.
“When I read that, I just thought, 'Well, how could that be?'” Noah said. “There was 1,266 casualties. If they only found 49 percent of them, where are they?”
Thus began Mark’s campaign, along with his nonprofit organization History Flight, to hone in on the island to recover the remains of American prisoners of war and those deemed missing in action.
While the early mission of History Flight was selling airplane rides in order to preserve American history, Noah was shocked when he saw the number of those missing from America’s wars.
“The total number of missing individuals from the 20th century is almost 88,000,” he said. “Almost 79,000 from World War II, 8,000 from Korea, over 1,100 from Vietnam and a number of people missing from the Cold War.”
Over the 11 years History Flight has been involved in MIA recovery, Noah and his team of researchers and field workers have found lost sites associated with more than 500 missing Americans across the world. In Tarawa alone, the group has found more than 120 soldiers spread across the chain of islands in a partnership with the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“It’s very significant for the dignity of the individuals,” Noah said. “None of the Marines who were willing to volunteer to lose their lives in World War II were willing to volunteer to spend the rest of their lives underneath a parking lot.”
7 Decades Years Later, a Name Restored
In order to identify the Marines hidden under 12 inches of crushed coral rock for more than seven decades, researchers have employed a wide array of modern resources. Dental patterns identified 22 of the 36 found on the Tawara Atoll, including Bonnyman, whose grandson said had "very, very distinctive dental work."
“He was older, so he had quite a bit, and he came from a very well-to-do family, so it was gold,” Evans said.
That gold was the principle identifier for Baker to be able to alert Evans with near 100 percent certainty that the body they recovered was Bonnyman.
“She said, ‘It’s gold,’ and I just dropped the camera,” he said. “I just had to stand there for a minute and take my breath and wipe my eyes. It just seemed like a dream.”
For the rest of the remains, researchers analyzed nuclear DNA pulled from bone samples and looked to match them against immediate family whom History Flight researchers tracked down.
Edwin Huffine, a board member overseeing History Flight’s DNA work, said family members have been surprised when told their long-lost relative may finally have been found.
“Even though the person was physically gone and 70 years had passed, the memory was not gone,” he said. “It helps provide something that the family needs generations removed to be able to resolve something from the past.”
A Final Resting Place
On July 25, Marine pallbearers carried their 36 fallen comrades onto U.S. soil inside flag-draped caskets, as "Taps" provided a backdrop to the somber scene.
“It is one the most solemn ceremonies I’ve had the opportunity to participate in,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Simcock. “For us, it’s always about accountability and bringing our Marines home after the fight is over.”
For his organization’s efforts in the largest post-war recovery of America’s war dead, Noah was inducted as an honorary Marine, though he said his work is far from finished.
“I always thought if Americans got engaged on this issue they could eradicate it within 10 years,” he said. “I think that America owes these people that restoration of their dignity and owes their families the answers that it has yet to be able to provide.”
On Sunday, Evans will lay his grandfather to rest in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. His remains will lie alongside family members who had died believing he would never return home.
As for Evans, he said he already has plans to return to Tarawa to assist in recovery efforts so more relatives of the dead may find the same peace.
“We’ll never come to the end of this,” he said. “I think there are some real lessons here for us as Americans and the consequences of war on families, and I think those are enduring lessons. Even if that island sinks beneath the waves, what they did stands, and is honorable for all time.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show when Bonnyman’s remains were found. They were in May of this year.