10 Jul 2015

Body of US marine identified by the gold in his teeth

From , 5:03 am on 10 July 2015

By Daniela Maoate-Cox, Radio New Zealand International

Clay Bonnyman Evans and archaeologist Kristen Baker uncover the body of First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman. Video by Clay Bonnyman Evans/History Flight, Inc.

A gold toothed US marine whose body was lost for 70 years has been discovered in Kiribati.

Crossing razor sharp coral, they waded to shore under constant fire from Japanese forces. Some died in the water, dragged under by heavy ammunition belts. Of the initial assault, only half of the 800 marines would make it to land.

In total, 1,696 United States troops died in the three-day Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. 4,690 Japanese died.

Among the soldiers lost was 31-year-old First Lieutenant Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr who appears in the 1944 documentary film With the Marines on Tarawa.

He died from his wounds on the battle's second day and his family were told various stories about where he was buried; including that he was bulldozed into the lagoon, or buried in The National Memorial Cemetery in Hawai'i, better known as the Punchbowl.

But his grandson and journalist, Clay Bonnyman Evans, was not convinced and in 2009 he joined an archaeological expedition to Kiribati to find his grandfather among the lost marines of Tarawa.

It was a tough task that would take six years.

"I've been to Tarawa five times, I've dug holes in the sand, I've sifted sand, I've washed bones in the lab, I've called families asking for DNA samples and honestly we agreed that this is a needle in a haystack. So I was well and truly floored when I got a call saying they felt they had discovered cemetery 27 because if it was 27 then there was every indication we would find my grandfather."

Hundreds of marines were buried on Betio, with many of them recovered in 1946 but at least 40 could not be found and were later declared unrecoverable.

Mr Evans held out hope his grandfather's teeth would help.

"He had a mouthful of excellent gold dental work and basically that was really unusual to have any for a young marine and he had a tonne."

In June this year his dedication was rewarded as he hovered over an archaeologist, Kristen Baker, while she brushed away sand revealing a glint of gold.

"We were working on the marine in plot 15 and the cranium next to him appeared and she believed that might be my grandfather so she just gradually brushed it down and said 'It's gold!'

"I dropped the video camera literally and I just had to recover myself even though I'd known for a couple of days that it was possible I just had butterflies everyday. It was hard for me to believe that that was going to happen."

Archaeologist Kristen Baker in Kiribati

Lead archaeologist Kristen Baker carefully exposes the remains of Lt. Bonnyman. Photo: Photo by Clay Bonnyman Evans/History Flight, Inc.

A 70 year old mystery had been solved but Lt. Bonnyman was far from heading home.

The next step was a job for forensic odontologist and part time member of the New Zealand Defence Force, James Goodrich, who analysed samples of the dental remains.

While gold dental work is not unusual, Lt. Bonnyman's teeth still stood out.

"It was distinctive because of the pattern of the gold work that Lt. Bonnyman had, rather than being particularly unusual that he had gold. There were other marines there that had gold restorative work done as well," he said.
"Teeth back in those days perhaps just weren't as good as they are now. There's a variety of factors there, education, diet people didn't floss back in those days, there was no fluoridated toothpaste. But certainly in that cohort of marines, and folks of that age, we wouldn't expect to see the interventionist dentistry that they had in a modern population." 

Dental analysis was just one part of the decade-long search for former veterans co-ordinated by the Florida charity, History Flight.

Its director, Mark Noah, says that over US$1.5 million has been put into the project so far.

"We worked out there for about nine years in various capacities," he said. "We used a variety of geolocation devices using old maps from the area and photographs and we ran an unmanned aerial vehicle over the island and created a 4,000 photo mosaic of the island in high resolution and then we were able to geolocate photos and maps from the era on top of today's current topography."

Remote sensing devices, ground penetrating radar and even a cadaver dog were also used to find the missing marines, he said.

"Each one of those individuals had an expectation that if they were to die in the line of duty, defending their country, that they would be brought home according to the wishes of their family. There was a quote that was put on a sign outside of one of the cemeteries on Tarawa that said 'rest warriors rest, against the day journeying forth, the tender hands will lift thee out to home soil waiting' and that was a promise made 70 years ago that we felt should be kept, and we endeavour to do that."

Mr Noah says there are about 500 missing soldiers in the Pacific yet to be returned to their families.

But for Clay Evans, his long wait will be over come September.

"We'll send him to Tennessee on the 26th for burial... and he will be under that big monument stone which says he's buried at sea which I think is historically poetic."

Update: The body of Alexander Bonnyman was transferred to his family at McGhee Tyson Airport south of Knoxville on September the 25th. His remains lay in honour at the East Tennessee Veteran’s Memorial until he was buried with full military honours at the Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville on September the 27th.

Clay Bonnyman Evans

Lieutenant Bonnyman's grandson Clay Bonnyman Evans. Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans