During the early morning hours of 20 November 1943, Marines of the 2nd Marine Division mounted and amphibious attack against the Japanese stronghold of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands. The battle, that lasted 72 hours, would become infamous for the high number of casualties the Americans suffered. The sorrow was further compounded because many of the American bodies buried on the island were never recovered after the war.
In November 2007, the History Flight organization of Marathon, Florida and the WFI Research Group of Fall River, Massachusetts agreed to a joint, privately funded venture to locate and return the bodies of our war dead to their families. With the financial support of the VFW, The American Legion, The Baddour Foundation, private individuals and History Flight board members the joint effort was able to bring a team of professional researchers, historians and ground penetrating radar specialists together to find 139 of the 541 missing Marines from The Battle of Tarawa.
After 14 years of research conducted by the WFI Research Group at various research centers around the country and the second of two survey trips to the island completed November 8th 2008 by the History Flight Organization and the expenditure of thousands of dollars we are happy to announce that we have located 139 of the 541 MIAs from Tarawa in 8 separate mass burials on the island. All are believed to be the Marines and sailors from the actual battle and not later casualties. 5 of the 8 burial sites have had US Marine remains accidentally dug up during the extensive construction activity on the island. One of the burial sites contains the remains of Lt Alexander Bonnyman who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the battle of Tarawa and is still buried on the island today.
The graves were located using a Mala X3M Ground Penetrating radar with 250 and 500 MHZ antennas and a surveyor quality Trimble GPS system donated for the trip by Ashtead Equipment of Atlanta GA.
“We are in the process of compiling the final reports on our efforts and when completed we will be contacting the Department of Defense POW-MIA Office and the Commandant of the Marine Corps” stated Mark Noah of the History Flight organization. “We’ll make one additional trip to the island to search for the remaining grave sites and make arrangements for the return and identification of the bodies. Allowing the families of the missing to finally have closure is our foremost goal” said Noah.
“Tarawa is the first of 14 projects we hope to accomplish in the coming years” said Ted Darcy of the WFI Research Group. “There were numerous problems encountered with the Tarawa project but we were able to overcome them all. We’ll be covering each of them in more detail in the final report which will be released next year” said Darcy.
The find of 139 missing in action service personnel is the largest in the history of the American Armed Forces. The previous high was the recovery of 19 Marines from Makin Atoll several years ago. Sadly, 72,766 American Armed Forces personnel are still listed as MIA from World War II, 541 are in the Tarawa area.
For more information on History Flight, log onto www.historyflight.com.