The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii today confirmed the identity of the remains of First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., recovered May 29 from the island of Betio, Tarawa Atoll, Republic of Kiribati.
Johnie E. Webb, deputy to the commander of DPAA, said by telephone that the agency had confirmed the identity based on a dental comparison, the legal standard for identification for the U.S. military.
“This was a really good, distinctive dental profile,” Webb said, noting that Bonnyman — who at 33 was older than most of the Marines killed in the battle, and whose prominent family owned coal mines in Tennessee — had numerous gold dental restorations. “Clearly, he came from a family that could afford to do that kind of dental work. He’s very unique from a dental aspect.”
Bonnyman, who was killed in the battle of Tarawa, was one of hundreds of Marines and Navy personnel whose remains were never recovered after the fighting. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Nov. 22, 1943.
An archaeological team from History Flight, Inc., a Florida-based nonprofit, discovered the location of long-lost “Cemetery 27” and began exhuming and documenting the remains of some three dozen Marines, including those of Bonnyman, on Betio in March.
Dr. David Senn, director of the Center for Education and Research in Forensics in the University of Texas at San Antonio Health Science Center’s forensic odontology department, went to Tarawa in June to conduct formal dental comparisons on the remains from Cemetery 27. He wrote June 16 that, “Based upon the findings and the correlations between the antemortem evidence for Alexander Bonnyman, Jr. and the postmortem evidence (of the remains), we conclude that the skeletal remains … are the remains of 1st Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., DOB 2 May 1910.”
Senn, diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, fellow in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and a member of the American Society of Forensic Odontology, noted that, “The concordance between the antemortem and postmortem and the distinctiveness of (Bonnyman’s) extensive gold restorations is exceptional and extraordinary” and “The accumulation of factors considered in this comparison is striking.”
DPAA’s confirmation of the identity clears the way for the agency to issue a new death certificate to the family and arrange for the transfer of Bonnyman’s remains. Bonnyman will be buried in a family plot in a public graveside ceremony at Highland Memorial Cemetery on Sept. 27. His niece, the Rev. Anne Bonnyman of Asheville, N.C., and nephew, Deacon Robert McKeon, of France, will lead an ecumenical service that also will include full military honors and a gun salute by the United States Marines Corps.