That bloody 76-hour battle took more than 1,100 American and 5,000 Japanese lives (including forced Korean laborers). Although little known by Americans today, it was a critical first demonstration of the full-scale amphibious assault that would become a lynchpin in the “island hopping” campaign toward the Japanese home islands.
Because of the sheer number of bodies and blazing tropical heat, the remains of the dead were hastily interred in trenches, identified by makeshift markers.
“Betio would have been more habitable if the Marines could leave for a few days and send a million buzzards in,” LIFE magazine reporter Robert Sherrod famously reported in his eyewitness account.
However, the priority was on rebuilding the bomb-shattered airfield in preparation for the attack on the Marshall Islands, and many of the markers were lost or destroyed. With the departure of the Second Marine Division just days after the fighting ended, no one was left to locate the graves.
In 1946, U.S. Army Graves Registration returned to survey the island and recover remains. However, just more than half of the bodies were found and the military subsequently tried to sweep the issue under the rug, going so far as to lie to families of the dead. Alexander Bonnyman is just one of four Medal of Honor recipients from the battle whose remains have not been recovered.
Seven decades later, and thanks mostly to the hard work of the private, non-profit History Flight Inc. — and often, despite the efforts of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, tasked with locating and repatriating remains — more than 120 sets of American remains have now been recovered.
On May 29, 2015, I was present when the History Flight team recovered the body of my grandfather. All told, our team recovered 46 sets of remains from the long-lost site of Cemetery 27 on the north side of Betio. My grandfather was the first of these to be re-interred, in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, next to his siblings and parents. Since then dozens of other Marines recovered by History Flight from Cemetery 27 have been laid to rest in the United States. This site contains many stories about this work and the recovery of my grandfather.
I have been to Tarawa six times since 2010, and am currently marketing a book about my grandfather’s story, before, during and after the battle, the military’s decades-long mismanagement of the situation, the state of Tarawa today, evolving ideas about heroism, and more.
In the meantime, here is some writing I’ve published about Tarawa and my grandfather:
“Entombed in Tarawa: Mission could bring home remains of WWII Marine,” Santa Fe New Mexican.
“Pilgrimage to a distant shore,” Princeton Alumni Weekly.
“Hallowed ground,” Boulder, Colo Daily Camera
Here is a story from the Knoxville News-Sentinel about my trip.
A story about a presentation I made about my grandfather in Knoxville on May 2, 2011, which would have been his 101st birthday.
“With the Marines at Tarawa,” 1944 Oscar-winning documentary