Standing in the new Christopher Browning Pavilion at Oak Hill, a great-great-nephew of Martha Berry captivated his audience Thursday night with the story of his grandfather, a World War II hero who lost his life on the battlefield, and how his body made it home.
The Battle of Tarawa took place between Nov. 20-23, 1943, where in just 76 hours around 1,100 Marines lost their lives taking the island of Betio as part of a campaign to invade the Japanese-held Pacific. After the battle was won the fallen were buried on the island and the United States military pressed on to the next stage of their offensive.
The battle is quite often overlooked when it comes to the American offensive in the Pacific theater, but for Clay Bonnyman Evans this battle is where his grandfather fell on the battlefield earning the Medal of Honor for his valor. The small island of Betio was also the place his grandfather was unceremoniously buried along with his fellow Marines. Where he ended up and what happened to his body became Evans’ obsession as he began piecing together clues and eye witness accounts to find 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr., nephew of Martha Berry and recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Evans recalled that his search was full of little mysteries. Growing up, his grandfather was his hero, however, he knew almost nothing about him. He said that after his grandfather died the details of his legacy seemed to die with him. Other than the medal and portrait his mother displayed at Evans childhood home there was almost nothing to tell him about Bonnyman. After he had died the family had been told several different stories, the first was Bonnyman had been buried at sea, which is what was put on his headstone. The second was that he was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, Hawaii. It wasn’t until 2009 that Evans came across research that pointed him to Betio as the final resting place of his grandfather. From then until 2015 Evans battled with government agencies, red tape, and the overwhelming fear that his grandfather’s remains would never be found. Evans partnered with non-profit History Flight Inc. who had already begun excavating the mass trench graves of the fallen Marines from the Battle of Tarawa.
“Every conversation I ever had with Mark, the guy who started the non-profit, was ‘it’s a needle in a haystack,’” Evans said. “We will probably never find him.”
Evans traveled to Betio several times and watched as archaeologists uncovered scores of bodies of the marines who fought and died there. The archaeologists removed every fiber and piece of bone they could find and carefully documented it, making the process long and tedious but thorough. Evans said that the bodies were wrapped in Marine issued ponchos that kept their personal effects such as ammo clips, socks, lighters and matches intact but made the bones very brittle. When a new grave site was found the workers had to dig carefully to not disturb the bodies as well as stay out of the way of a nearby freight business that happened to have unknowingly built their buildings on the gravesites of the long lost Marines.
However in 2015 Mark Noah, the founder of History Flight Inc., called Evans and said they might have found his grandfather’s final resting place.
“He said, ‘I want you to come down and bring your camera,’” Evans said.
The archaeologists had uncovered a new trench that lined up with where Bonnyman should have been buried. Evans said he was up at night with fear and anxiety that something would or already had happened to his grandfather’s remains before he could get to them and take them home.
In this newly found trench a skull was found with gold fillings in the teeth and a dental record that matched perfectly with Bonnyman. They had found the lost Medal of Honor recipient. The skeleton was almost completely there since it was not wrapped in a poncho upon burial.
After a brief holdup reentering the country, 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman was finally laid to rest next to his father and mother in Knoxville, Tennessee, with full military honors. Evans said he will not change the headstone that read ‘buried at sea’ because that is part of his story.
During the Battle of Tarawa, Bonnyman rallied his men to push forward towards a fortified Japanese position. Acquiring explosives and flame throwers for his men, Bonnyman crawled 40 yards into enemy lines and planted explosive devices onto the entrance of a well fortified bunker that artillery had failed to penetrate. He fell back only to get more ammunition and continued assaulting the bunker until he successfully drove out 100 enemy soldiers who were cut down by American troops. When Japanese forces made a counter attack on the bunker he held them off, killing three more before he was fatally wounded. A Marine who survived the battle was able to tell Evans that he picked up his grandfather and carried him to the beach which led Evans and his team to believe that is where he was buried. After the battle, Bonnyman was posthumously awarded Medal of Honor which was received by his oldest daughter, Evans mother.
His return was a happy ending, and Evans still looks to carry on his legacy through writing and speaking.
“I am a story teller,” Evans said. “It is what I did as a journalist and it is what I am doing now.” Evans’ book, “Bones of My Grand Father: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II,” details his search for his grandfather’s body as well as a documentation of Bonnyman’s legacy.