Profiles of Valor: Welcome Home, Lt. Bonnyman
A Patriot Model of Service and Sacrifice
“There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” —Alexander Hamilton (1775)
It is my great humble privilege to acknowledge one of many American Patriots who have honored their oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution in the service of our country, and paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
Having been associated with military intelligence communities for the last 25 years, and more recently as an advisory board member with the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, I have been deeply humbled with opportunities to meet many of the 78 living recipients of this most rare and prestigious military award, which denotes “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of [one’s] life above and beyond the call of duty.”
But one recipient, whom I will know only through his honorable record of service, is Marine 2nd Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr. Lt. Bonnyman returned home to Tennessee two weeks ago, some 72 years after he was last on his native soil.
At the onset of World War II, Bonnyman was statutorily exempt from military service because the then-30-year-old was operating a copper-mining company that produced vital material for the war effort. Despite this, Bonnyman enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps. Two years later, he set out for the Pacific aboard the Matsonia.
Bonnyman distinguished himself at Guadalcanal and in other direct enemy actions, and his exceptional leadership abilities earned him a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant in February 1943. In November of that year, he demonstrated his heroic character on Tarawa, the most strongly defended Japanese island in the Pacific, an island whose defenders claimed “it would take one million men one hundred years” to conquer.
As Executive Officer of Company F, 2d Battalion Shore Party of the 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division, Lt. Bonnyman led his men onto the Battle of Tarawa, where they took the fight to a supremely fortified Japanese enemy that had been slaughtering the Americans.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Bonnyman was utterly determined to end that slaughter:
“Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations. … Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance.”
His citation continues:
“Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement. Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded. By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
More than 1,000 Marines would lose their lives on that tiny atoll during a hellish 76-hour battle, and it was this “dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership” that earned Lt. Bonnyman the Medal of Honor.
At the time of his death 72 years ago on 22 November, the remains of Bonnyman and many other Americans were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island. In 1947, the Army Graves Registration Service recovered most of those remains and those identified were repatriated to their hometowns across America. But Bonnyman and 40 other Marines were never found, most likely because Navy Combat Engineers inadvertently covered “Cemetery 27” when reconfiguring the island. They were declared “unrecoverable” by the Quartermaster General’s Office in 1949.
Unrecoverable, that is, until July of this year, when Bonnyman’s grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans, brought him home.
Mark Noah, founder of History Flight, announced in early July “the discovery and recovery of historic Cemetery 27 on Betio Island as part of its 10-year, multi-million-dollar effort to recover hundreds of Marines lost to history, their nation and their families in 1943.”
History Flight, in conjunction with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, located Cemetery 27 in 2011, and in March of this year confirmed the location and began excavation. Clay Evans assisted in that excavation, during which they recovered the remains of more than 120 Marines. His grandfather’s distinctive dental records, which included some gold teeth, led to his ultimate identification.
Bonnyman’s Medal of Honor action is one of very few ever captured on film, though he is rarely identified in the raw combat footage. In a video posted online, Bonnyman can be seen at minute 1:23 in the very center of the frame (without helmet cover) motioning for flamethrowers and riflemen to advance on the bunker. Also take note of the very brief footage at 3:49, where you will see one of the only instances in which Marines and Japanese troops were caught in the same frames during ground combat.
Some 16 million Americans of the Greatest Generation served in World War II, and more than 400,000 died defending Liberty. Of those 16 million, 471 were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Welcome home, Lt. Bonnyman. May God’s eternal blessing be upon you, Sir, and may the spirit of your service and humbling sacrifice continue to enliven and embolden the hearts of today’s American Patriots.
“Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them.” —Thomas Jefferson (1775)
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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