Battle of Tarawa Remembered

Published On: Nov 12 2010 08:45:24 AM HST   Updated On: Nov 16 2010 09:14:36 PM HST


Thousands of men - American and Japanese - died in 3 days. So how could it be, so few people know about the "Battle of Tarawa?" But on this Veterans Day, one Maui woman turned back the pages to reveal an important part of her history and ours.

“I deeply regret to inform you,” Alexandra Bonnyman Prejean read from a faded Western Union telegram, “your husband 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman was killed.”

In the aging pages of a tattered album, Alexandra Bonnyman discovered the father, the hero, she barely knew and the bloody battle that ended his life.

“That's from Daddy. That's from my father,” she said, holding up a postcard torn on each corner.

In 1943, 2 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, her father Alexander Bonnyman, was on his way to a tiny pacific atoll called Tarawa 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It’s a place so remote, even today, people tell her:

“There is no place that is called Tarawa. There is no kingdom of Kiribati. It does not exist.”

But what happened in just 76 hours left an estimated 1,100 Americans, 4,800 Japanese and 1,200 Korean laborers dead.

“It was a very bloody battle,” sighed Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Gregory Fox. We caught him in his office at Hickam Air Force Base. “Iwo Jima had more casualties, longer campaign and a bigger island.”

The Battle of Tarawa was fought on a patch of land half the size of Central Park.

“Here's one of the sites on Tarawa,” he pointed out on a colored map on his table.

He says for Americans Tarawa was the perfect spot for an air strip.

“The purpose was to get heavy bombers in there to start the island hopping campaign in the pacific,” he said.

It was an island already loaded with 5,000 Japanese, hundreds of pillboxes, and huge, steel guns lining the beaches.

“They had a prayer service,” said Alexandra, pointing to a black and white picture in her album.

Aboard the SS Matsonia, her father and his fellow marines prepared for what Dr. Fox called the first amphibious assault of World War II. It was an attack by sea nothing short of sending them to slaughter.

“No one would think of doing that now,” said Dr. Fox shaking his head. “Putting somebody out in the open, 500 meters away, and say wade to the beach where they're shooting at you.”

“He wasn't supposed to be there,” said Alexandra of her father.

Bonnyman’s job was to escort the marines to shore, and then get back on the boat. It was an order he ignored.

“Well, he saw what was happening,” she said, “so he got off himself.”

By day 3, Bonnyman worked his way to the top of a bunker. Inside: more than 100 Japanese soldiers. It would be the last obstacle before victory.

“And somebody, somebody had to take it,” she continued.

Leading a team to the top, tossing in grenades, it would be his final act of heroism.

“This is right before he's hit with a sniper,” Alexandra tapped a picture of a figure, his back facing the camera, at the top of a bunker.

“With deepest sympathy,” she then began, reading letters out of her album, “from Harry Truman, how about that!”

Honored, revered and even recreated.

Alexandra pulls out a comic strip depicting her father’s last moments alive.

“It’s the story of Alexander Bonnyman Junior,” she said, of the takeover of what’s now called Bonnyman’s Bunker.

His story found, his remains still missing, and potential hundreds more, buried, scattered and lost.

“A lot of those small cemeteries just disappeared,” said Dr. Fox.

“I think there are a whole lot of families who have no idea,” said Alexandra, knowing she’s done her best to move on.

“This is right before he's hit with a sniper,” sighed Alexandra Bonnyman Prejean, pointing to a black and white picture of her father standing on top of a bunker.


More than a thousand Americans died in the Battle of Tarawa in one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history - and many remains were never found.

65 years later, a team of experts from Hawaii is determined to reunite families with their loved ones. It is a daunting, nearly impossible, mission, but in honor of the heroes who died that day it is mission that has not been forgotten.

“This is right before he's hit with a sniper,” sighed Alexandra Bonnyman Prejean, pointing to a black and white picture of her father standing on top of a bunker.

“He took it upon himself to do something that needed to be done and lost his life for it, but saved a lot of other lives.”

A young child when her father died, Alexandra learned through pictures, letters and history books of a 76-hour slaughter that left some 7,000 Americans, Japanese and Koreans dead - including her father.

“Oh, he was very, very handsome,” she smiled, looking at a small picture tucked in the corner of a tattered album.

In the years that followed: awards, condolences and questions.

“Now, you see, he had a cross and his name was on it,” she said, pointing to a misspelled grave marker on a beach in Tarawa.

She has questions about the servicemen who died on Tarawa - an atoll 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii - whose remains are still missing 65 years later.

“A lot of those small cemeteries just disappeared,” admits Dr. Gregory Fox.

This summer, Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Gregory Fox lead a team from Hawaii's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command - or JPAC - to 6 sites on Tarawa - potentially holding up to a hundred Americans.

They are sites where battle grounds are now roads and houses.

“Today, there are 20,000 people living on that island,” said Dr. Fox. “And those 20,000 people are living about as close together as you and me. There is no evidence of any of these cemeteries on the surface now.”

So, they dig, scour and analyze.

In 45 days they find two – two sets of remains – two chances for closure.

In JPAC’s Honolulu crime lab, forensic anthropologists are investigating those remains - and nearly 1000 others - at what is the largest skeleton identification lab in the world.

“On the lab floor, is anything from the Korean war, World War II, or Vietnam,” said Hugh Tuller showing Reporter Lara Yamada around the crime lab. He is a Forensic Anthropologist for JPAC.

“There is no lab here that can do what we do,” continued Dr. Robert Mann. Mann heads JPAC’s Forensic Science Academy. He says they foster local talent and help crack local cases.

In recent months, JPAC has investigated human remains exposed during a Lualualei brush fire, remains found floating in a Makiki stream, and some uncovered in the backyard of a Manoa Valley home.

“We can make an identification realistically in a police case perhaps in a matter of a day or a couple of days,” said Mann. “Cases with the military take longer. It can take weeks, months or years.”

“It took all this time,” said Alexandra, still flipping through her album.

It took all this time, to learn who her father really was and what he and thousands of others sacrificed on this tiny atoll in the middle of the pacific.

“I feel very grateful to have learned about him as much as I have,” she said.

Now, as she and so many other families wait for what, one day, may come she shared a dash of gratitude, mixed with a world of hope.

“It doesn't go away just because time passes,” said Dr. Fox.

“It's not an easy task,” Dr. Mann adds, “but it's something we need to do.”

To this day: more than 74,000 service members remain missing - from just World War II alone. Congress is now mandating JPAC to make 200 identifications - every year - by 2015.

A final note: you may not realize there is a memorial in Waimea on the Big Island called "Camp Tarawa." Thousands of marines who survived the bloody battle went straight to the Big Island to recover and retrain for the battle of Iwo Jima.


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