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View the service history of entrepreneur:
CPL Conrad Hilton
Short Bio: He purchased his first hotel in Cisco, Texas in 1919 after returning from service in World War I. He quickly acquired other hotels, and formed Hilton Corporation in 1946. His first luxury Hilton Hotel was built in 1925 in Dallas Texas, and his empire has expanded to include over 2000 hotels and properties around the world.
My duties as a communications (cryptologic) technician would include flying missions, as one of 30 crewmembers, with VQ-1 that was headquartered in Atsugi, Japan. VQ-1 was a naval air reconnaissance squadron that flew in support of Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam from March 2, 1965 to October 31, 1968. Rolling Thunder was the longest bombing campaign ever implemented by the U.S. Air Force and Navy during the Vietnam War. The aircraft used by VQ-1 during Operation Rolling Thunder was the EC-121M, a converted Lockheed Super Constellation passenger plane that was commonly used in the 1940’s and 50’s. We referred to this aircraft as the ‘Connie’. It consisted of a crew of 18 to 30 personnel depending on the electronic tasks involved in our missions. During the time that I served with Det Bravo, I flew 38 missions with VQ-1.
Our flights were usually eight or more hours in length flying over the Gulf of Tonkin near and around the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong. Our crews consisted of specialists in Morse code intercept along with Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese linguists who monitored voice intercept from the surface to air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam. Our plane also had the capability of establishing the coordinates of our downed pilots who were shot down during their bombing missions and relaying this information to the U.S. 7th Fleet in the South China Sea below. This information was vital to determine if a rescue attempt could be made.
During the six months that I served at Da Nang, there were three rocket attacks made against the airbase by enemy forces. The most severe rocket attack at Da Nang during the Vietnam War had occurred on July 15, 1967 when the enemy forces fired 83 rounds of 122mm and 140mm Russian manufactured rockets on to the airbase. There were 175 casualties during that attack and 44 of them were personnel of Det Bravo and VQ-1. Our barracks happened to be located about 50 yards from a bomb storage area that was ignited by one the rockets that had exploded there. The bunkers that we had constructed did not have roofs on them at the time, so the shrapnel from the exploding bombs rained down into our bunkers. Fortunately, no one was killed but our barracks was totally destroyed. After the attack, the personnel of Det Bravo were transferred to another area located near Da Nang Harbor called Camp Tien Sha. It was near the R & R area at China Beach. China Beach was a favorite place for many G.I.s, especially when the pretty American nurses were there. We referred to them as round eyes.
I was only at Da Nang for six months of my life but it was six months that I will never forget. Compared to the Vietnam combat veterans, I had easy duty while I was in Vietnam but I served with honor and felt that both Det Bravo and VQ-1 had performed their assignments with exemplary dedication in support of the U. S. war effort.
In conclusion, I would like to pay a special tribute to all of the Vietnam veterans and also to the VQ-1 crew that was shot down by North Korea over the Sea of Japan on April 15, 1969. I had flown with some of that same crew while I was at Da Nang, including the plane commander, Lt. Cdr. James Overstreet.
To view video of rocket attacks on Da Nang airfield https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDdIdT9pd3s
View the service history of actor:
PFC Hugh Brannum
US Marine Corps
View his Service Profile on TogetherWeServed.com at http://marines.togetherweserved.com/profile/175756
Short Bio: Best remembered as Mr Green Jeans on “Captain Kangaroo”, While in college at Redlands University, he became interested in jazz, and after graduation, played bass in various bands on the West Coast and occasionally at a local radio station. During World War II, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and joined a Marine band led by Bob Crosby, brother of famed singer Bing Crosby.
Unique to all that served in Vietnam is the UH-1H helicopter. It was both devil and angel and it served as both extremely well. Whether a LRRP, U.S. or RVN soldier or civilian, whether, NVA, VC, Allied or Civilian, it provided a sound and sense that lives with us all today. It is the one sound that immediately clears the clouds of time and freshens the images of our mind. It will be the sound track of our last moments on earth. It was a simple machine – a single engine, a single blade and four man crew – yet like the Model T, it transformed us all and performed tasks the engineers never imagined. For soldiers, it was the worst and best of friends but it was the one binding material in a tapestry of a war of many pieces.
The smell was always hot, filled with diesel fumes, sharp drafts accentuated by gritty sand, laterite and anxious vibrations. It always held the spell of the unknown and the anxiety of learning what was next and what might be. It was an unavoidable magnet for the heavily laden soldier who donkey-trotted to its squat shaking shape through the haze and blast of dirt, stepped on the OD skid, turned and dropped his ruck on the cool aluminum deck. Reaching inside with his rifle or machine gun, a soldier would grasp a floor ring with a finger as an extra precaution of physics for those moments when the now airborne bird would break into a sharp turn revealing all ground or all sky to the helpless riders all very mindful of the impeding weight on their backs. The relentless weight of the ruck combined with the stress of varying motion caused fingers and floor rings to bind almost as one. Constant was the vibration, smell of hydraulic fluid, flashes of visionary images and the occasional burst of a ground-fed odor – rotting fish, dank swampy heat, cordite or simply the continuous sinuous currents of Vietnam’s weather – cold and driven mist in the Northern monsoon or the wall of heated humidity in the southern dry season. Blotting it out and shading the effect was the constant sound of the single rotating blade as it ate a piece of the air, struggling to overcome the momentary physics of the weather.
To divert anxiety, a soldier/piece of freight, might reflect on his home away from home. The door gunners were usually calm which was emotionally helpful. Each gun had a C-ration fruit can at the ammo box clip entrance to the feed mechanism of the machine gun. The gun had a large circular aiming sight unlike the ground-pounder version. That had the advantage of being able to fix on targets from the air considerably further than normal ground acquisition. Pears, Apricots, Apple Sauce or Fruit Cocktail, it all worked. Fruit cans had just the right width to smoothly feed the belt into the gun which was always a good thing. Some gunners carried a large oil can much like old locomotive engineers to squeeze on the barrel to keep it cool. Usually this was accompanied by a large OD towel or a khaki wound-pack bandage to allow a rubdown without a burned hand. Under the gunner’s seat was usually a small dairy-box filled with extra ammo boxes, smoke grenades, water, flare pistol, C-rats and a couple of well-worn paperbacks. The gun itself might be attached to the roof of the helicopter with a bungee cord and harness. This allowed the adventurous gunners to unattach the gun from the pintle and fire it manually while standing on the skid with only the thinnest of connectivity to the bird. These were people you wanted near you – particularly on extractions.
The pilots were more mysterious. You only saw parts of them as they labored behind the armored seats. An arm, a helmeted head and the occasional fingered hand as it moved across the dials and switches on the ceiling above. The armored side panels covered their outside legs – an advantage the passenger did not enjoy. Sometimes, a face, shielded behind helmeted sunshades, would turn around to impart a question with a glance or display a sense of anxiety with large white-circled eyes – this was not a welcoming look as the sounds of external issues fought to override the sounds of mechanics in flight. Yet, as a whole, the pilots got you there, took you back and kept you maintained. You never remembered names, if at all you knew them, but you always remembered the ride and the sound.
Behind each pilot seat usually ran a stretch of wire or silk attaching belt. It would have arrayed a variety of handy items for immediate use. Smoke grenades were the bulk of the attachment inventory – most colors and a couple of white phosphorous if a dramatic marking was needed. Sometimes, trip flares or hand grenades would be included depending on the location and mission. Hand grenades were a rare exception as even pilots knew they exploded – not always where intended. It was just a short arm motion for a door gunner to pluck an inventory item off the string, pull the pin and pitch it which was the point of the arrangement. You didn’t want to be in a helicopter when such an act occurred as that usually meant there was an issue. Soldiers don’t like issues that involve them. It usually means a long day or a very short one – neither of which is a good thing.
The bird lifts off in a slow, struggling and shaking manner. Dust clouds obscure any view a soldier may have. Quickly, with a few subtle swings, the bird is above the dust and a cool encompassing wind blows through. Sweat is quickly dried, eyes clear and a thousand feet of altitude show the world below. Colors are muted but objects clear. The rows of wooden hooches, the airfield, local villages, an old B52 strike, the mottled trail left by a Ranch hand spray mission and the open reflective water of a river or lake are crisp in sight. The initial anxiety of the flight or mission recede as the constantly moving and soothing motion picture and soundtrack unfolds. In time, one is aware of the mass of UH1Hs coalescing in a line in front of and behind you. Other strings of birds may be left or right of you – all surging toward some small speck in the front, lost to your view. Each is a mirror image of the other – two to three laden soldiers sitting on the edge looking at you and your accompanying passengers all going to the same place with the same sense of anxiety and uncertainty but borne on a similar steed and sound.
In time, one senses the birds coalescing as they approach the objective. Perhaps a furtive glance or sweeping arc of flight reveals the landing zone. Smoke erupts in columns – initially visible as blue grey against the sky. The location is clearly discernible as a trembling spot surrounded by a vast green carpet of flat jungle or a sharp point of a jutting ridge, as the bird gets closer, a soldier can now see the small FAC aircraft working well-below, the sudden sweeping curve of the bombing runs and the small puffs as artillery impacts. A sense of immense loneliness can begin to obscure one’s mind as the world’s greatest theatre raises its curtain. Even closer now, with anxious eyes and short breath, a soldier can make out his destination. The smoke is now the dirty grey black of munitions with only the slightest hint of orange upon ignition. No Hollywood effect is at work. Here, the physics of explosions are clearly evident as pressure and mass over light.
The pilot turns around to give a thumbs up or simply ignores his load as he struggles to maintain position with multiple birds dropping power through smoke swirls, uplifting newly created debris, sparks and flaming ash. The soldiers instinctively grasp their weapons tighter, look furtively between the upcoming ground and the pilot and mentally strain to find some anchor point for the next few seconds of life. If this is the first lift in, the door gunners will be firing rapidly in sweeping motions of the gun but this will be largely unknown and unfelt to the soldiers. They will now be focused on the quickly approaching ground and the point where they might safely exit. Getting out is now very important. Suddenly, the gunners may rapidly point to the ground and shout “GO” or there may just be the jolt of the skids hitting the ground and the soldiers instinctively lurch out of the bird, slam into the ground and focus on the very small part of the world they now can see. The empty birds, under full power, squeeze massive amounts of air and debris down on the exited soldiers, blinding them to the smallest view. Very quickly, there is a sudden shroud of silence as the birds retreat into the distance and the soldiers begin their recovery into a cohesive organization, losing that sound.
On various occasions and weather dependent, the birds return. Some to provide necessary logistics, some command visits and some medevacs. On the rarest and best of occasions, they arrive to take you home. Always they have the same sweet sound which resonates with every soldier who ever heard it. It is the sound of life, hope for life and what may be. It is a sound that never will be forgotten. It is your and our sound.
Logistics is always a trial. Pilots don’t like it, field soldiers need it and weather is indiscriminate. Log flights also mean mail and a connection to home and where real people live and live real lives. Here is an aberrant aspect of life that only that sound can relieve. Often there is no landing zone or the area is so hot that a pilot’s sense of purpose may become blurred. Ground commanders beg and plead on the radio for support that is met with equivocations or insoluble issues. Rations are stretched from four to six days, cigarettes become serious barter items and soldiers begin to turn inward. In some cases, perhaps only minutes after landing, fire fights break out. The machine guns begin their carnivorous song. Rifle ammunition and grenades are expended with gargantuan appetites. The air is filled with an all-encompassing sound that shuts each soldier into his own small world — shooting, loading, shooting, loading, shooting, loading until he has to quickly reach into the depth of his ruck, past the extra rations, past the extra rain poncho, past the spare paperback, to the eight M16 magazines forming the bottom of the load – never thought he would need them. A resupply is desperately needed. In some time, a sound is heard over the din of battle. A steady whomp whomp whomp that says: The World is here. Help is on the way. Hang in there. The soldier turns back to the business at hand with a renewed confidence. Wind parts the canopy and things begin to crash through the tree tops. Some cases have smoke grenades attached – these are the really important stuff – medical supplies, codes and maybe mail. The sound drifts off in the distance and things are better for the moment. The sound brings both a psychological and a material relief.
Wounds are hard to manage. The body is all soft flesh, integrated parts and an emotional burden for those that have to watch its deterioration. If the body is an engine, blood is the gasoline – when it runs out, so does life. It’s important the parts get quickly fixed and the blood is restored to a useful level. If not, the soldier becomes another piece of battlefield detritus. A field medic has the ability to stop external blood flow – less internal. He can replace blood with fluid but it’s not blood. He can treat for shock but he can’t always stop it. He is at the mercy of his ability and the nature of the wound. Bright red is surface bleeding he can manage but dark red, almost tar-colored, is deep, visceral and beyond his ability to manage. Dark is the essence of the casualty’s interior. He needs the help that only that sound can bring. If an LZ exists, it’s wonderful and easy. If not, difficult options remain. The bird weaves back and forth above the canopy as the pilot struggles to find the location of the casualty. He begins a steady hover as he lowers the litter on a cable. The gunner or helo medic looks down at the small figures below and tries to wiggle the litter and cable through the tall canopy to the small up-reaching figures below. In time, the litter is filled and the cable retreats – the helo crew still carefully managing the cable as it wends skyward. The cable hits its anchor, the litter is pulled in, and the pilot pulls pitch and quickly disappears – but the retreating sound is heard by all and the silent universal thought – There but for the Grace of God go I – and it will be to that sound.
Cutting a landing zone is a standard soldier task. Often, to hear the helicopter’s song, the impossible becomes a requirement and miracles abound. Sweat-filled eyes, blood blistered hands, energy-expended and with a breath of desperation and desire, soldiers attack a small space to carve out sufficient open air for the helicopter to land. Land to bring in what’s needed, take out what’s not, and to remind them that someone out there cares. Perhaps some explosives are used – usually for the bigger trees but most often it is soldiers and machetes or the side of an e-tool. Done under the pressure of an encroaching enemy, it’s a combination of high adrenalin rush and simple dumb luck – small bullet, big space. In time, an opening is made and the sky revealed. A sound encroaches before a vision. Eyes turn toward the newly created void and the bird appears. The blade tips seem so much larger than the newly-columned sky. Volumes of dirt, grass, leaves and twigs sweep upward and are then driven fiercely downward through the blades as the pilot struggles to do a completely vertical descent through the narrow column he has been provided. Below, the soldiers both cower and revel in the free-flowing air. The trash is blinding but the moving air feels so great. Somehow, the pilot lands in a space that seems smaller than his blade radius. In reverse, the sound builds and then recedes into the distance – always that sound. Bringing and taking away.
Extraction is an emotional highlight of any soldier’s journey. Regardless of the austerity and issues of the home base, for that moment, it is a highly desired location and the focus of thought. It will be provided by that familiar vehicle of sound. The Pickup Zone in the bush is relatively open, or if on an established firebase or hilltop position, a marked fixed location. The soldiers awaiting extraction close to the location undertake their assigned duties – security, formation alignment, or LZ marking. Each is focused on the task at hand and tends to blot out other issues. As each soldier senses his moment of removal is about to arrive, his auditory sense becomes keen and his visceral instinct searches for that single sweet song that only one instrument can play. When registered, his eyes look up and he sees what his mind has imaged. He focuses on the sound and the sight and both become larger as they fill his body. He quickly steps unto the skid and up into the aluminum cocoon. Turning outward now, he grasps his weapon with one hand and with the other holds the cargo ring on the floor – as he did when he first arrived at this location. Reversing the flow of travel, he approaches what he temporarily calls home. Landing again in a swirl of dust, diesel and grinding sand, he offloads and trudges toward his assembly point. The sounds retreat in his ears but he knows he will hear them again. He always will.
Keith Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded two airborne battalions and both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade. He was a member of the Iran rescue attempt in 1981 (Operation Eagle Claw, better known to many as “Desert One”) and was the assault force commander in both Grenada and Panama.
The military service of actor
Capt Henry Gibson
US Air Force
View his Service Profile on TogetherWeServed.com at http://airforce.togetherweserved.com/profile/174780
Short Bio: Gibson was born James Bateman in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His love of acting began when he joined the Mae Desmond theater company, in Philadelphia, at eight years old, and continued into his time at the Catholic University of America, Washington, where he studied drama. He would later pick up this passion again when, after serving as an intelligence officer in the US Air Force between 1957 and 1960, he enrolled at Rada in London.
By LtCol Mike Christy Together We Served Dispatches
Following the December 1941 Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island and other Pacific islands, the U.S. began to halt Japan’s aggression expansion with important battle victories at Midway Island in June 1942 and Guadalcanal from Aug. 1942 to Feb. 1943. To continue the progress against the Japanese occupying scattered island chains, Allied commanders launched counter-offensive strikes known as “island-hopping.” The idea was to capture certain key islands, one after another, until Japan came within range of American bombers. Rather than engage sizable Japanese garrisons, these operations were designed to cut them off and let them “whither on the vine.”
By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the Americans. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa Atoll, a series of small islands in the Gilberts. The major Japanese outposts were on Betio, a bird-shaped island in the southern part of the chain; and Makin, which was raided early in 1942 by U.S. Marines.
Tarawa turned out to be the most fortified atoll America would invade during the Pacific Campaign. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, and 2,500 Imperial Naval Marines with 2,300 Korean and Japanese laborers transformed Betio into a fortress of unparalleled intricacy, with coconut log bunkers cemented with crushed coral and intersecting zones of fire supported by coastal guns, antiaircraft guns, heavy and light machine guns and light tanks. Betio’s beaches were naturally ringed with shallow reefs, which were covered with barbed wire and mines. Shibazaki reportedly bragged that the U.S. “couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in 100 years.” American forces proved him wrong.
On Nov. 20, 1943, after a three-hour bombardment by naval gunfire and bombing runs by carried-based aircraft, the 2nd Marine Division landed on Betio. It would take 35,000 men three days to conquer Tarawa. At the end of the battle, neither side would look at the war the same way.
The attack was a monumental effort of combined arms coordination in a new war tactic which relied upon heavy pre-invasion bombardment by battleships and carrier planes. Marines were to approach the shore in new amphibious tractor vehicles dubbed amphtracs. These landing crafts, armed with machine guns and carrying 20 troops each, were able to crawl over shallow reefs and other barriers.
The highly coordinated U.S. battle plan at Betio relied on the precise timing of several key elements to succeed, but almost from the beginning there were problems. Heavy sea turbulence slowed transfer operations of the U.S. Marines to the ship-side landing crafts. A pre-invasion air raid was delayed, upsetting the timetable for other parts of the assault. Holding for the air raids, support ships ready to launch massive pre-invasion bombardments lingered in position longer than expected. They were forced to dodge increasingly accurate fire from the island where Japanese defenders were dug in.
Compounding these problems was a lower-than-anticipated tide level around the island that morning. Most amphtracs in the first assault wave were able to reach the beach as planned, but nearly all the larger, heavier landing crafts behind them jammed into coral reefs exposed by the shallow tide. Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up on freeing the boats and instead waded toward shore hundreds of yards away through chest-deep water under intense enemy fire, and within the first hour the first wave had suffered almost total casualties.
Precious gear, especially radios, became soaked and useless. Many Marines were hit in the open water, and those who made it to shore arrived exhausted or wounded, ill-equipped and unable to communicate with supporting forces.
Making matters worse, the assault path through the lagoon to the shore became congested with disabled landing crafts and bloodied corpses, which hindered the dispatching of reinforcements. Marines on the beach crawled forward, inch by inch, knowing that to stand or even rise slightly made them easy targets. By the end of the first day, 5,000 Marines had landed at Betio; 500 had perished in the process. By the end of the first night, it was not definite that the Americans were here to stay.
Like the Japanese Navy in the Solomon’s, Americans were losing their junior officers and non-commissioned officers rapidly. Advance was only due to a Sergeant or a Lieutenant leading their squad or platoon over the seawall and moving inland. The Japanese would not give up. They would fire until they had one bullet and kill themselves with their big toe in the trigger of their rifle.
On the morning of November 21, the second day of fighting, unexpectedly low tides continued to plague the U.S. assault. Again, assault troops had to leave their crafts short of the shore and wade in through enemy fire. In addition to being fired upon from shore, Marines were also assaulted from their sides and rear by enemy snipers who had entered the lagoon under the cover of night to position themselves on crafts that had been wrecked and abandoned the day before.
By noon, however, the tide finally began to rise, and U.S. destroyers were able to maneuver closer to shore to lend accurate supporting fire. Reserve combat teams and support craft transporting tanks and weapons raced to shore, and the ground assault finally took orderly form. The Marines moved inland, blasting surviving enemy emplacements with grenades, demolition packs and flamethrowers.
On day three of the battle, November 22, the Marines fought on, destroying several Japanese pillboxes and fortifications. Dead and wounded were mounted on both sides and even the division reserve could not turn the tide. At dusk the Americans had occupied enough ground to ensure that Tarawa would be taken; the only question was the amount of blood. Shibasaki and his entire command staff died sometime on the third day, committing suicide rather than face capture.
That night, the remaining 300 Japanese and Korean laborers came out of their last positions and attacked in a desperate attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. If these men had died in their pillboxes, certainly more Americans would have died.
At morning light on November 23, the island defenders lay in tangled heaps: All but 17 Japanese soldiers had died defending Betio. Seventy-six hours after the invasion began, Betio was finally declared secure.
It was a fight that lasted only three days, but it was among the bloodiest in 20th-century American history. By the time the battle ended, 1,084 U.S. Marines lay dead on the sandy earth and churning water. Some 2,101 were wounded. In the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa, U.S. Marines suffered almost as many killed-in-action casualties as U.S. troops suffered in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island.
Legendary war correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote, “No one who has not been there, can imagine the overwhelming, inhuman smell of 5,000 dead who are piled and scattered in an area of less than one square mile.”
Offices of government and military offices were flooded with angry letters over the number of Americans dead on Tarawa. The number of dead and wounded on both sides would only get larger as the war in the Pacific progressed. However, according to “The Pacific War” by John Costello, U.S. commanders learned important lessons from the Battle of Tarawa that would be applied to future island wars, including the need for better reconnaissance, more precise and sustained pre-landing bombardments, additional amphibious landing vehicle and improved equipment.
After the battle, Marines who died were wrapped in ponchos and folded into shallow graves in several areas around Tarawa. But there were so many bodies, including the thousands of Japanese soldiers, that the U.S. Navy eventually bulldozed the site and expanded the airfield and built a network of roads and offices. By the time an excavation team arrived in 1946 to exhume and identify the dead, no one could remember where they were. Investigators spent three months searching, but they found only half the Marines in five of eight known impromptu burial sites.
One of the unfound sites was Cemetery 27, presumed to contain the bodies of 33-year-old Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. and approximately 40 other Marines killed in action. Its occupants were officially declared “unrecoverable” by the U.S. government which issued a letter stating that most of the Tarawa war dead were presumed lost at sea near the island.
But without conclusive proof that Bonnyman was among them, his family began a decades-long campaign to procure information about their beloved soldier’s final resting place.
In 2008, working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Mark Noah’s History Flight funded and conducted two six-week long searches in the Marshall, Caroline and Gilbert Islands hunting for remains previously believed to be unrecoverable. History Flight also hired a geophysical inspection firm and brought a geophysicist to the island of Tarawa to search for “lost” Marine graves with a ground penetrating radar. In the six weeks the team spent on Tarawa â interviewing local residents who had accidentally unearthed 20 American skeletons during construction activity on the island â they were able to locate, identify and survey five large American burial sites and three individual sites that contained over 200 U.S. Marines left behind after WWII. Cemetery 27 was not among the burial sites found.
Over the years, letters and calls went unanswered as Bonnyman’s family sought answers, and the details of the soldier’s death and burial became even further muddied in the memories of his loved ones.
A glimmer of hope came in 2010, when a joint team from the Defense POW and MIA Accounting Agency began a recovery mission on the Gilbert Islands in hopes of locating the mass graves in which U.S. and Japanese soldiers were said to have been buried.
That was the first time members of Bonnyman’s family – some of whom were unaware the remains were still missing – heard that there might be chance of recovery.
In 2011, JPAC discovered Cemetery 27, the site where Bonnyman and 35 others were buried underneath a parking lot. Excavation began in March 2015 and continued through the end of June.
When History Flight began calling families to obtain DNA samples of the Marines unaccounted for at Tarawa, Bonnyman’s grandson Clay Bonnyman Evans jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the group and flew to Betio to assist in excavations.
“I spent my childhood idolizing him, even though he died 18 years before I was born,” said Evans, who made the long trip from his home in Boulder, Colorado, to Tarawa to be here while JPAC is digging for remains. Evans traveled at his own to observe the team’s work, hoping they might find his grandfather’s remains.
“I have felt a very strong connection to this man that I never knew. He loomed large for me as a kid …,” Evans said. “I have wanted to come here for a long time.”
He retraced his grandfather’s steps at Tarawa, wading through the water onshore, then climbing to the top of a bunker referred to as “Bonnyman’s Bunker.” Now overgrown and filled with trash, the bunker was a Japanese stronghold during the battle.
It was at this bunker that assault troops were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery fire at the seaward end of the long Betio Pier, on his own initiative Bonnyman organized and led five men over the open pier to the beach. There he voluntarily obtained flame throwers and demolitions and directed the blowing up of several hostile installations.
On the second day of the struggle, Bonnyman, determined to breach the enemy’s strong defensive line, led his demolitions teams in an assault on the entrance to a huge bombproof shelter which contained approximately 150 Japanese soldiers. The enemy position was about forty yards forward of the Marine lines. Bonnyman advanced his team to the mouth of the position and killed many of the defenders. His team was forced to withdraw to replenish its supply of ammunition and grenades. Bonnyman again pressed his attack and gained the top of the structure, thereby flushing more than one hundred of its occupants into the open where they were shot down. When the Japanese fought back, the Lieutenant stood at the forward edge of the position and killed several attackers before he fell mortally wounded.
For his actions during the battle, Bonnyman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The medal was formally presented to his family by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in 1947. His 12-year-old daughter, Frances, accepted the medal on behalf of the Bonnyman family.
Evans knew that his grandfather had distinctive dental work, including gold teeth. He said he was breathless when Kristin Baker, the History Flight Recovery Team leader, called him over to examine the teeth on an exposed cranium.
“It is gold,” Baker told him. Evans said it’s very likely that the remains are those of the Medal of Honor recipient, but legal verification was still required.
On July 26, 2015, the remains of the three dozen Marines arrived at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu Hawaii where a team of specially trained dentists and other experts work to authenticate their identities.
On August 27, 2015 Bonnyman’s remains were identified and on September 28, 2015, he was returned to his childhood home town of Knoxville, Tennessee and interred with his family, with full military honors at West Knoxville’s Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery.
For nearly 73 years, Bonnyman’s family – members of which now live in Boulder County – remembered the handsome, adventurous man they had lost with what few artifacts they had left: his Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously for his efforts to hold back a Japanese counterattack; a large portrait, commissioned from an Italian oil painter; and a few black-and-white photographs taken during the assault on Betio.
“It feels great,” Clay Evans said of the culmination of his family’s generation-spanning quest. “My great-grandparents really worked hard to get his remains back. They wrote letters, and they just sort of got every story in the book from the military; they thought they would never have his remains.”
“I actually grabbed my stomach and thought, ‘Good grief. Is it really going to happen?’ I never thought it would,” said Bonnyman’s oldest daughter, Frances Evans, now 83.
Bonnyman was the last of four Medal of Honor recipients from the Battle of Tarawa to be located.
With the discovery of Bonnyman’s remains, there are only 30 Medal of Honor recipients killed in World War II whose final resting places are still unknown, according to Laura Joyey of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.