A 72-year-old mystery was solved recently when Clay Bonnyman Evans found the remains of his grandfather, Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr, a WWII war hero lost since the Battle of Tarawa.
Evans has been living with the legacy of his grandfather since his whole life.
“I grew up with that medal of honour on my family’s wall,” he tells As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. “He was a figure for me . . . a living, breathing presence in all of [my family members’] lives.”
Lt. Bonnyman was awarded the U.S. Army’s Medal of Honour post-humously for leading an assault against a Japanese cement blockhouse during the Battle of Tarawa.
“He physically led the men up the bunker and when there was a counter attack,” explains Evans. “He stood his ground at the leading edge and held them off long enough for enough marines to come up and knock them back.”
Lt. Bonnyman was killed in the assault and buried in a trench alongside other casualties. But, after the battle, the island was almost immediately thrown into preparations for an American assault on the Marshall Islands. In their haste, the cemetery markers were trampled and the cemetery was lost.
In 1946, U.S. Army Graves Registration returned to Tarawa tasked with the mission of bringing slain soldiers back to their families. They were unable to find Cemetery 27.
Many families were given incorrect information about the whereabouts of their relatives’ remains. The Bonnyman family was told that Lt. Bonnyman was buried at sea.
The inability to bury Lt. Bonnyman deeply affected the family and inspired Evans to search for the his lost grandfather.
He teamed up with a charitable organization called History Flight that leads archeological projects to recover the remains of lost American Marines. When they began their expedition to the Island of Tarawa, on Kiribati, Evans went along.
He was present when archeologists were able to identify the skeletal remains of his grandfather. The crucial detail that led to his identification were his teeth, which were riddled with gold fillings.
“We knew when we saw those teeth there was a 99 per cent chance it would be Alexander Bonnyman,” says Evans. “I was just overcome . . I just couldn’t believe it had happened.”
The family plans to bury Lt. Bonnyman on the family plot this September.