Conspicuous Gallantry at Tarawa: How One Marine Earned the Medal of Honor During World War II

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Key Point: Bonnyman’s legacy lives on.

Four Medals of Honor were award­ed for acts of con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry during the inva­sion of Tarawa atoll in the Pacific during World War II. It is per­haps indica­tive of that four-day ordeal that three of them were award­ed posthu­mous­ly. The cita­tion most cov­ered in the press at the time, which caught the imag­i­na­tion of the American public, was given to the family of U.S. Marine 1st Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman for his actions on November 22, 1943, the final day of battle.

A Man Out of the Military

Perhaps no other indi­vid­ual best rep­re­sent­ed the aver­age American male of middle America than did Alexander Bonnyman. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 2, 1910, Bonnyman grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, after his family moved there when he was two years old. Bonnyman’s father became pres­i­dent of the Blue Diamond Coal Company of Knoxville, one of the widest dis­trib­u­tors of coal for home heat­ing at the time. Bonnyman attend­ed Mrs. J.A. Thackston’s School in Knoxville as a youth and grad­u­at­ed from Newman High School in Lakewood, New Jersey, before enter­ing Princeton University in 1928.

“Sandy was a very hand­some guy, a plea­sure to be with,” said his 99-year-old class­mate John Harmon, who until recent­ly still went to work in his invest­ment office in sub­ur­ban Chicago twice a week. “We ate lunch in the Commons and talked about women.”

Bonnyman stud­ied engi­neer­ing and emerged as a col­lege foot­ball star during his sopho­more year, play­ing guard on the 1928 Tigers foot­ball team. Ever rest­less, he dropped out of col­lege in 1930, lack­ing the grades nec­es­sary to advance to his junior year. He final­ly enlist­ed in the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet on June 28, 1932.

He attend­ed pre­flight school at Randolph Field, Texas, but for rea­sons still unclear washed out of the avi­a­tion pro­gram and received an hon­or­able dis­charge on September 19 of that same year. He found employ­ment in his father’s com­pa­ny and mar­ried a local sweet­heart named Josephine Bell, in San Antonio, Texas, on February 15, 1933. Always striv­ing to improve his lot in life, Bonnyman moved to New Mexico in 1938, where he pur­chased a small copper mine with inter­est in a second in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles out­side Santa Fe, and start­ed his own small mining busi­ness at the age of 28. During this period he fathered three daugh­ters, Frances, Josephine, and Alexandra. He seemed to have found his place in life.

“Sandy” Bonnyman: An Island-Hopping Marine

When war broke out in 1941, Bonnyman was exempt from ser­vice due to his age (31) and the fact that he was run­ning a com­pa­ny pro­duc­ing strate­gi­cal­ly vital mate­r­i­al nec­es­sary for the war effort. Nevertheless, deter­mined to see action, he signed up once again for Army Air Corps flight train­ing and washed out once more, report­ed­ly for buzzing too many con­trol towers. He then turned to the Marine Corps, which accept­ed him as a pri­vate in July 1942. He enlist­ed in Phoenix, Arizona, and received his basic train­ing at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California.

“Sandy” Bonnyman, as he was known to his friends, sailed for the South Pacific in October of that year aboard the trans­port USS Matsonia as a member of the 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, headed for Guadalcanal. He served with dis­tinc­tion during the Guadalcanal cam­paign as part of a Marine pio­neer unit (sim­i­lar to a light Army combat engi­neer group), using his engi­neer­ing expe­ri­ence during his time there to build a vital­ly needed bridge across the flood­ed Poha River. Now a cor­po­ral, at the con­clu­sion of the cam­paign in February 1943, he received a bat­tle­field com­mis­sion to the rank of second lieu­tenant in recog­ni­tion of what his supe­ri­ors described as excep­tion­al lead­er­ship skills.

After a state­side leave, he saw his family for what would be the last time. Then, the Marines began inten­sive train­ing for the upcom­ing cam­paign to seize Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands. On September 1, 1943, Bonnyman was pro­mot­ed yet again to exec­u­tive offi­cer of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines shore party, detailed to handle shore logis­tics and the land­ing of men and sup­plies. Bonnyman’s civil­ian expe­ri­ence, tem­pera­ment, and skills were deemed ideal for the post and would come to play a vital part in the Marines’ abil­i­ty to come ashore in his sector against heavy Japanese oppo­si­tion.

The amphibi­ous land­ing on the islet of Betio at Tarawa atoll on November 20, 1943, turned into one of the grimmest blood­baths of the entire Pacific War. Some of the land­ing craft in the first wave were hung up on the island’s sur­round­ing coral reefs; many men were drowned or cut down before they had a chance to make it to shore. Those who did found only a narrow strip of beach a few yards wide with little more than a narrow sea­wall of coconut logs for cover.

Hitting the Beach on Tarawa

The Japanese had had months to pre­pare defens­es on Betio, and every square foot was cov­ered by Japanese weapons. Whole units were held up at the water’s edge or cut down trying to secure a foothold. Once the sur­viv­ing Marines reached the beach, they con­front­ed a net­work of Japanese pill­box­es, snipers, and artillery fire. By night­fall the Marines ashore were hang­ing onto a ten­u­ous foothold.

Bonnyman’s posi­tion as exec­u­tive offi­cer of the 2nd Battalion Shore Party did not give him direct combat respon­si­bil­i­ty. Nevertheless, he took on a lead­er­ship role in the chaos, assem­bling and lead­ing an ad hoc assault team, as shown in the 1944 doc­u­men­tary With the Marines at Tarawa. “He was a good, lik­able guy, but he took no guff,” remem­bered Leroy Kisling of Modesto, California, then a sergeant who served with Bonnyman as a demo­li­tion man on Tarawa. He recalled Bonnyman as a gen­er­ous man who would share his officer’s liquor ration with the non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers. “Wading into Tarawa, we all had our hands full. One of the guys had a mine detec­tor, and he thought it was too heavy, so he dropped it into the ocean. Bonnyman threat­ened to send the guy back under enemy fire to get it. His atti­tude was, ‘You’ve got a job to do; you’d better do it.’ ”

Sandy Bonnyman soon demon­strat­ed the courage and valor on that first day that gained him the grat­i­tude of a thank­ful nation at the cost of his own life. When the assault troops com­pris­ing the first wave were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery fire at the sea­ward end of the long Betio pier, Bonnyman, acting on his own ini­tia­tive, gath­ered a group of five men and led them across the open pier, swept by con­tin­u­ous Japanese machine-gun and mortar fire, to the beach beyond. There he obtained flamethrow­ers and demo­li­tion charges and over­saw the destruc­tion of sev­er­al enemy instal­la­tions that were pre­vent­ing the Marines from moving for­ward.

Fighting With “Forlorn Hope”

On the second day, November 21, the Marine advance was held up by a cement block­house and a large, sand-cov­ered redoubt, later known as Bonnyman’s Hill. The block­house, con­tain­ing at least 150 Japanese defend­ers, was imper­vi­ous to air attack and shelling from the naval ves­sels assem­bled off­shore. Destruction of this posi­tion would open a hole in the entire Japanese defen­sive line, allow­ing the Marines to pour through to the inte­ri­or of the island.

The Japanese posi­tion, 40 yards for­ward of the Marine lines, was inflict­ing heavy casu­al­ties. An ad hoc squad of assort­ed engi­neers, includ­ing Corporal Harry Niehoff lead­ing a demo­li­tions sec­tion and Corporal John Borich in charge of two fully loaded flamethrow­ers, was assem­bled. Neither of these men knew Bonnyman before that moment.

“He just showed up,” remem­bered Niehoff. “Until that time we were being held up with no gain to show for it.” The unit was nick­named “Forlorn Hope.”

The ini­tial assault car­ried the men for­ward almost to the mouth of the Japanese posi­tion, and a number of Japanese troops were killed along the way. However, the Marines were even­tu­al­ly beaten back short of ammu­ni­tion. As the day faded, Bonnyman sur­veyed the Japanese posi­tion with an expe­ri­enced engineer’s eye, care­ful­ly study­ing the approach to the bunker, the var­i­ous out­ly­ing machine-gun posi­tions, and taking spe­cial notice of the large air vents that pro­trud­ed from the top of the bunker. Tomorrow would be dif­fer­ent.

Bonnyman’s Heroic Assault

Bonnyman’s third and last day on Tarawa, November 22, dawned bright and clear to find the Marines still pinned down in the same posi­tions they had occu­pied on the pre­vi­ous day. Under the swel­ter­ing trop­i­cal sun the tem­per­a­ture soared to 110 degrees Farenheit later in the day. By this time anoth­er indi­vid­ual had attached him­self to Bonnyman’s squad, a Marine Corps pho­tog­ra­ph­er by the name of Corporal Obie Newcomb. Newcomb quick­ly real­ized he was in the pres­ence of some­one unusu­al and decid­ed to follow the lieutenant’s assault with his camera. The action he was about to record belied the oft-repeat­ed Hollywood myth of Bonnyman strap­ping on a flamethrow­er and sin­gle­hand­ed­ly taking on the Japanese. What hap­pened that day was the result of team­work, but also the intel­li­gent, self­less, and absolute­ly fear­less lead­er­ship of Sandy Bonnyman.

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