Seven decades after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the remains of Medal of Honor recipient Marine Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. may soon be home.
The remains of at least three dozen Marines killed in the battle for Tarawa Atoll were discovered recently by a Florida-based nonprofit group, History Flight Inc., working with the Department of Defense agency charged with accounting for the dead and missing from American wars.
Among the remains, only Bonnyman's have been publicly identified. More DNA tests are underway, but Bonnyman's grandson, who participated in the dig, is convinced of his identity based on a distinctive dental pattern that includes the use of gold.
In three days of fighting in November 1943, more than 1,000 Marines were killed in a headlong assault to take the island from the Japanese. The escort carrier Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine, with more than 600 sailors killed. Japanese deaths on Tarawa were estimated at more than 4,500.
According to a Marine Corps history, Marines were pinned down near their landing spot by heavy enemy fire, and "the success of the battle seemingly hinged on individual efforts and acts of heroism."
Bonnyman crawled 40 yards forward and set demolition charges near a Japanese emplacement. He then led a bayonet charge before being mortally wounded, the history says.
When the Japanese attacked back, Bonnyman "inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counter-attack and break the back of hostile resistance," according to the Medal of Honor citation signed by President Truman.
After the battle, and then following the end of the war, the Marines attempted to account for all of the dead and missing, repatriating the remains when possible. Those efforts were hampered by the chaos that had existed on what the Marines to this day simply call Bloody Tarawa. Hundreds of the dead were declared unrecoverable.
But in recent years private groups and individuals, including Leon Cooper of Southern California, have sought to locate and honor the fallen.
Bonnyman's grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans, says the family hopes to have the remains in Knoxville, Tenn., by fall for burial. Bonnyman grew up there, played football at Princeton, and owned a copper mine in New Mexico before joining the Marines.
"His death shattered the family — it's hard to imagine," Evans said. "For my mom, it's hard even now for her to talk about or even think about."
Evans, who lives in Niwot, Colo., was there when his grandfather's remains, with the distinctive gold dental work and possibly his dog tag and lighter, were found. A report of the find was issued by the military and History Flight on June 16 and made public last week. The atoll is part of what is now the Republic of Kiribati, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Evans' mother, Frances, was 12 when she received her father's Medal of Honor from the secretary of the Navy in early 1947. As a child, the events surrounding her father's death were bewildering.
"I just remember that he was gone," she told the Associated Press recently. "I remember waiting for him to come home for Christmas, but he never got home."
History Flight founder and director Mark Noah says more efforts will be made to find missing military personnel on Tarawa and other places.
"It's time for all of them to come home," he said.