The remains of 36 U.S. Marines were found during four months of excavation on Betio Island, a remote Pacific island in Kiribati. The Marines lost their lives more than 70 years ago, in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa during World War II. More than 1,000 Americans gave their lives in the battle, which wiped out all 4,800 Japanese soldiers.
The excavations were conducted in a joint effort by the charitable organization known as History Flight Inc., and the U.S. Defense Department.
Although formal identifications have not been made, Mark Noah, director of History Flight Inc. believes the remains likely include those of Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, who was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor. It is said that Bonnyman led a series of assaults but perished in a final attack on a key installation hindering their advance.
Several hundred fallen soldiers remain in the unmarked graves they were buried in following the battle. Noah said the agencies will continue their efforts to bring the remaining soldiers home.
“(They) had an expectation that if they were to die in the line of duty defending their country they would be brought home… that was a promise made 70 years ago that we felt should be kept,” said Noah. The plan is to repatriate the remains this month and complete the identification process. “There’s a lot of work to be done on the island,” Noah said in a recent interview.
Typically, one would expect the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to complete the task. However, JPAC, which recovered and identified missing soldiers, merged with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C., and certain departments of the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory this past spring; following a directive by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (formerly of Nebraska). The directive, according to the Military.com website, came last year with a goal to reorganize efforts into a single agency which could more effectively oversee operations.
“Our obligation [is] to the families who have lost a loved one and providing the answers they deserve, while increasing identification capacity,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
A new lab and headquarters for JPAC at Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii was expected to be fully operational after the “C4I” (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) were installed, the Pentagon said.
Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, said the new facility would “more effectively and efficiently function.” It is unclear whether the newly-created agency will play any role in the project on Betio Island.