A white marker at the Santa Fe National Cemetery is inscribed with the name of Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. But the plot beneath it is empty, mirroring the void Bonnyman’s family has lived with since his death more than 70 years ago in World War II.
Bonnyman, a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor in combat, was one of about 1,100 Marines killed in 1943 during the Battle of Tarawa. His remains were among the hundreds declared “unrecoverable” by the U.S. quartermaster general in 1949, but thanks to the efforts of a small, privately funded organization, Bonnyman’s family finally can make preparations to bring him home.
With its team of experts, the Florida-based nonprofit History Flight used remote sensing, ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs to search for the lost cemeteries of Tarawa, a battleground of the Pacific Theater. Drone flights helped create a high-resolution aerial map of the island. Then it was cross-referenced against old military maps.
Gradually, investigators discovered that the original burial information wasn’t recorded correctly. The trench where Bonnyman was thought to have been laid to rest with 39 other soldiers was finally located on private property owned by a shipping company. History Flight crews excavated the site in May and recovered the remains.
Until about five years ago, Clay Bonnyman Evans only knew the broad outlines of his grandfather’s story of life, death at age 33 and immortality because of the Medal of Honor. So rare is the Medal of Honor that it has been awarded to only about 3,500 servicemen since its inception during the Civil War.
Evans, a former Santa Fe resident who now lives in Colorado, remembers the medal hanging on the wall of the home where he grew up.
“I grew up seeing him as this amazing role model,” Evans said Monday in a phone interview.
He’d also heard the stirring story of how Bonnyman, already an honorably discharged military veteran, was exempt from the draft and could have chosen not to join the effort to win World War II. But Bonnyman, at 32, enlisted in the Marines after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Bonnyman entered the Marines as a private and was promoted to 1st lieutenant after he fought in the final stages of the Guadalcanal Campaign. When his battalion landed on the Tarawa atoll on Nov. 20, 1943, they encountered some 5,000 Japanese soldiers dug into heavily armed fortifications. The Japanese guarded a strategically important airstrip on one square mile of sand.
Over the course of three days, Bonnyman organized and led demolition teams against the Japanese installations, including a drawn-out assault on a bomb-proof shelter where an estimated 150 enemy soldiers were embedded.
As the Marines at last succeeded in flushing out of the occupants, a Japanese soldier shot and killed Bonnyman. The Marines secured the island at the end of that day.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Bonnyman’s family began to learn a lot more about why his remains were locked in the sand where he fell. That year, Evans joined search and recovery efforts by History Flight.
Mark Noah, a commercial airline pilot, founded History Flight after assisting on a recovery mission with the Bent Prop Project, an all-volunteer effort to recover the remains of American service members who died in the Pacific islands during World War II.
Noah said he was moved by the experience and couldn’t shake the fact that so many service members remained unaccounted for. He decided to use his own money to start a search organization. It’s been largely centered on locating lost cemeteries on tiny Betio island, where the battle of Tarawa was fought. Now it’s a crowded, heavily polluted and poverty-stricken urban center.
Evans said that in the tropical heat of 1943, after the island was secured, Navy construction battalions dug shallow trenches to ensure that men killed in action were buried as quickly as possible.
Military officials made a strong effort to record the burial placements of soldiers, Evans said. “They set up tiny wooden stakes, which they used to hang dog tags, but unfortunately they needed to rebuild the airstrip.”
The improvised cemetery where Bonnyman was buried was on the edge of the new airstrip pier. During the course of its hasty construction, the military lost track of the grave markers.
Today, Noah said, finding the old gravesites “is not unlike trying to find a sunken ship in the ocean. It’s extremely difficult.”
Evans traveled to the island for two weeks in May during excavation of the site. He helped with the dig, cleaning bones at the nonprofit’s 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, Evans 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.”
Evans said his time on the island felt like a favor to his late great-grandparents. “It was tragic for them. They tried so hard to bring their son back, and it was just a disappointment over and over again. They died without knowing where he was.”
In 1938, Bonnyman followed his father into the mining business and bought a copper mine in Tererro, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Bonnyman and his wife decided to settle on East Garcia Street in Santa Fe. Their eldest daughter, Frances Evans, vividly remembers weekends when her father was home from work. On Sundays, they’d walk downtown for Catholic Mass, and afterward, he’d take her for a treat at the Capital Pharmacy.
“And then he was gone. I just remember that he was gone. I remember waiting for him to come home for Christmas, but he never got home,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Colorado.
People were reticent to talk about anything too emotional in those days, Bonnyman’s youngest daughter, Alexandra “Alix” Trejean said by phone. She wasn’t yet a year old when her father went to war.
But she gets choked up at the thought of burying him in another empty plot that bears his name, at the family cemetery in Tennessee. “When we inter him in Knoxville, the whole family will be together.”
Contact Margaret Wright at 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.