Marines killed in World War II battle back on US soil
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Thirty-six Marines received a somber, near-silent reception Sunday when their remains were returned from a World War II battlefield.
The flag-draped caskets containing the remains of U.S. Marines killed at the Battle of Tarawa almost 72 years ago arrived at 4 p.m. at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam aboard three Marine Corps C-130s from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing based in Iwakuni, Japan.
“When you heard the bugler blow taps, it felt like the temperature in here went down 10 degrees,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, deputy commander of Marine Corps Pacific Forces, inside Hickam’s Hangar 35. “For a Marine to see the heroes finally returned to the United States with the promise of returning them to their families, to complete that journey, to complete that circle, means a tremendous amount.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, spokeswoman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said, “I do believe this would be an unprecedented number of service members being repatriated, especially of all one service, they all being Marines.”
Alexandra “Alex” Bonnyman Prejean, just 3 when her father went to war, was the only family member of any of the Marines to witness the return. Prejean, a Hawaii resident and the youngest child and namesake of 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., watched solemnly as the caskets were ceremoniously brought from the planes into the hangar. Bonnyman is the only one of the 36 Marines whose remains has been tentatively identified by dental work.
History Flight Inc., a Florida nonprofit that has searched Tarawa for more than five years, announced in June its discovery of a burial trench on Tarawa’s Betio Island, a sandy grave of at least 36 Marines killed Nov. 20-23, 1943.
History Flight’s Glenn Prentice, present for the ceremony, said the find “was very emotional for me because I am a former combat Marine,” adding, “So it’s like keeping a promise. It’s like a mission that we’re always doing.”
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Director Michael Linnington said, “These families from the Battle of Tarawa have been waiting for almost 72 years for their loved ones to come home. So for them it’s a day they never imagined they’d see.”
Linnington, who spoke with Prejean, said, “She, as you can imagine, and the entire Bonnyman family are thrilled that he is part of this group. We will quickly confirm the preliminary identifications and … these young men, who gave their lives, will be back to their families for burial with honors later this summer and fall.”
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This story has been corrected to reflect that the Marines' remains arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam aboard Marine Corps C-130s from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, not Air Force C-130s.