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Searching for a war hero

By John Torigoe, CNN
  • Marine 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr. died in World War II's Battle of Tarawa
  • Bonnyman's remains, along with hundreds of other Marines, were never recovered
  • This year, a military team began excavating the battle site
  • Bonnyman's grandson, who never met him, traveled to the Pacific for the search

Tarawa, Kiribati (CNN) -- Clay Bonnyman Evans stands on Betio island's coral sand beaches, trying to imagine his grandfather's last moments alive.

Evans never met his grandfather. His only memory stems from the man's portrait hanging in the family's living room.

"Seeing him on the wall and knowing that heroism and wondering could I possibly aspire to be that," Evans, 48, recalled. "He was a very real presence in my life."

U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr. fought and died in the Battle of Tarawa in World War II in November 1943. He was part of the U.S. effort to secure the Japanese-held island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll, which claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 American sailors and Marines. Many were buried in large common graves.

Sixty-seven years later, the American servicemen are still buried, including Bonnyman who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions.

In August, a U.S. military joint task force based in Hawaii sent a 13-member team to Betio to recover the remains.

Mission: Find WWII Marines' remains
Bringing home the fallen
Remembering veterans who have no one

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command excavated six sites hoping to find remains of some 300 missing WWII American servicemen from the battle.

"It's basically a promise by the United States government that they will do everything in their power to bring their fallen warriors home," said lead archaeologist Gregory Fox.

Read more about the excavation effort

Evans traveled on 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."

Sandy Bonnyman was movie-star handsome. When news of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor filtered to Bonnyman's church congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his oldest daughter vividly recalls her father's reaction.

"He was very upset ... pacing and concerned," said Fran Evans, now 76. "By April, he was out of there; he went to Arizona to enlist."

Bonnyman even turned down an offer to go to officers' training.

"He was just very gung-ho, very patriotic," Evans recalled.

With a wife, three children and a small copper mining business that would help the war effort, Bonnyman would have been exempt from enlisting.

He went through boot camp as a private, then sailed for the Pacific. At the Battle of Guadalcanal, Bonnyman distinguished himself as a combat engineer. He received a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant for his exceptional leadership skills.

On November 20, 1943, the Allies set their sights on Tarawa, a coral atoll in the central Pacific near the equator.

But military planners made a grave miscalculation.

The amphibious landing by the 2nd Marine Division was made at a neap tide -- the lowest level of a high tide. Landing craft couldn't breach the outer reef, and Marines waded ashore exposed and facing enemy gunfire.

Bonnyman was supposed to be handling noncombat beach logistics. Instead, with Marines pinned down on Betio's only pier, Bonnyman -- exposing himself to enemy gunfire -- collected flame throwers and demolitions.

He led a small group of Marines and took several installations. The next day, he organized and led an even larger team up a large, sand-covered bombproof shelter, eventually flushing out and killing more than 150 enemy soldiers.

Once at the top of "Bonnyman's Bunker" -- named for his heroic leadership -- Bonnyman was killed facing a counterattack. He was 33.

The "Bloody Battle of Tarawa," as it's known in Marine Corps history, lasted 76 hours. The Japanese fought to the death. Only 17 were taken as prisoners out of a force of nearly 5,000.

I have felt a very strong connection to this man that I never knew. He loomed large for me as a kid.
--Clay Evans, grandson of 1st. Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman

Bonnyman and the other U.S. Marines killed in the campaign originally were buried in graves all around Tarawa, but because there were so many bodies, including about 4,000 Japanese, the Navy bulldozed the area.

The mission to find the remains in August yielded no new discoveries. The military team, however, received bones of two potential servicemen from locals and will examine the remains at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.

There is no specific timetable when the military will resume its search. "It's not on the calendar, but we will be back," said Lee Tucker, a command spokesman.

Clay Evans said just being on the same island where his grandfather died in battle was a life-changing experience.

"Coming back [home] it's almost like my world is different now having been there," Evans said. "I'm guessing I'll be the only member of this family maybe ever to come here except for my grandfather. So to me, I don't know why, but that feels like a little bit of a badge of honor. I didn't do anything heroic, but it feels important for me to be here."