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Remains Of 36 World War II Marines Returned To U.S.


This past weekend, flag-draped caskets bearing the remains of 36 Marines killed in World War II were flown home for identification and proper burial. The men were killed in the battle of Tarawa in the Pacific in 1943 and had been hastily buried there in mass graves. It was a vicious battle over three days. More than 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed, along with thousands of Japanese troops and Korean forced laborers. A documentary film from the time shows the bodies of Marines strewn on the beach and floating in the Pacific.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: These are Marine dead. This is the price we have to pay for a war we didn't want.

BLOCK: First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., is believed to be among those whose bodies have been recovered. His grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans, joins me now to talk about this epic journey across generations. Mr. Evans, welcome.

CLAY BONNYMAN EVANS: Thanks, Melissa. Good to talk to you.

BLOCK: And what did you hear growing up about just what happened to your grandfather and how he died on the island of Betio?

EVANS: Well, my mother was the oldest child. She received the Medal of Honor, so that medal hung on the wall with a citation describing his actions as well as a portrait. So we did have that information, but really, honestly, it was very broad-brush. I mean, I understood that he had done an incredibly courageous thing in organizing and leading this assault that helped wrap up this battle, but very, very soft focus - not a lot of detail.

BLOCK: Clay, you have - you've hooked up with a nonprofit group called History Flight that tries to find veterans' bodies. You went to this island multiple times with them. Describe the work that they do and how they were trying to find these remains.

EVANS: They started with archival work in Washington libraries, the Marine Corps archives and so forth to come up with what's called casualty cards. These are index cards on which the information about where people were buried was recorded and had been kind of buried in the stacks. They started there. In 2008, they began using ground-penetrating radar. They used a cadaver detection K-9 named Buster from California, a remote aerial vehicle survey GPS - every tool they could. And then when they finally began doing their own field recoveries, there are archaeologists that Mark Noah, who runs History Flight, hires. They run the teams. They do it exactly professionally as archaeologists are trained to do. They grid out and they begin digging. It's quite a meticulous process.

BLOCK: As you were watching these service members' remains be uncovered, what was that like?

EVANS: There are moments when you look at - all of them still have their boots. And it just makes you realize what real people they were. And mostly these were young men. They never had a life. And it's heartbreaking. I mean, sometimes there is hair. Sometimes there is identifying information and it just - when you step aside for just a moment, you feel the heartbreak and you feel really a swell of gratitude just knowing that they did what they did.

BLOCK: And what about the moment when you knew that's my grandfather?

EVANS: (Laughter) Kristen Baker, the archaeologist, knew that if we saw some very distinctive gold dental work - because my grandfather was older, he was quite wealthy. He had a mouthful of gold and nobody else recorded as buried in this trench had anything like that. And when Kristen said it's gold and when she just barely exposed the front side of his skull and jaw, I just dropped the camera. I just stopped filming and I had to take a few deep breaths. I had to wipe my eyes. I had to just step back and say this thing that everybody said was never going to happen for 70 years, History Flight has just made happen.

BLOCK: How old was your grandfather when he died?

EVANS: He was 33 years old.

BLOCK: Were there any artifacts, any clothing, anything with your grandfather's skeleton there?

EVANS: Yes. Most of the equipment was removed, but I pulled a lump of what was clearly metal out of what would have been his front hip pocket. And that turned out to be his Zippo lighter on which he'd scratched his initial B. We also found a belt buckle and a few other things, but very, very little whereas most of these Marines were killed on the first day of the battle and they had full battle rattle with them. They had ponchos, gas masks, ammo clips, anything you can imagine. My grandfather was very, very spare.

BLOCK: What does it mean to your family - if your grandfather's identification is officially confirmed by the military, what does it mean to have him home?

EVANS: I almost feel like I'm doing this on behalf of my great-grandparents. I didn't know my great-grandfather, but I did know my great-grandmother and my great uncle, and they were shattered and heartbroken. And they worked very hard to try to get his remains back. My mother has always been - it's been very painful for her, the loss of her father. And my auntie, you know, she was quite young. She doesn't remember, but I can hear in their voices when I talk to them how incredibly powerful and meaningful it is for them to get Sandy, as he was called, back home.

BLOCK: Well, Clay Evans, thanks so much for taking time to talk to us.

EVANS: Thank you, Melissa. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: And the family of First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., plans to bury his remains in the family plot in Knoxville, Tenn., on September 27. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.