75 years later, Battle of Tarawa fighters are remembered at Punchbowl

U.S. Marines of the 3rd Radio Battalion, prepare to give a rifle salute during a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, Nov. 19, 2018. The ceremony was in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: November 20, 2018

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Seventy-five years ago this week, the Battle of Tarawa was a bloody proving ground for Marine Corps amphibious doctrine in the Pacific.

Over 76 hours, 961 Marines and sailors were killed trying to take the heavily defended Japanese outpost on the tiny isle of Betio, just 2 miles long but bristling with dug-in troops, snipers and machine guns.

Nearly all of the 4,800 Japanese defenders and Korean laborers were killed.

The hard lessons learned during the main attack from Nov. 20 to 23, 1943, would factor into every amphibious landing after as the United States island-hopped across the Pacific during World War II.

But for the relatives of those who gave their lives there, the history of Tarawa Atoll is deeply personal.

Joni Mehall, 62, lost her uncle, bombardier 2nd Lt. Donald Underwood, whose B-24 Liberator crashed onto a reef shortly after takeoff from Helen Island on Jan. 21, 1944.

Last year the Defense Department announced that Underwood had been identified.

“My dad was 91 years old, and he got to bury his brother,” Mehall said Monday. Asked how much that meant to her father, Mehall said, “A lot.”

Mehall, who lives in Michigan, was among nine families of formerly missing Tarawa service members who came to Punchbowl cemetery for an American Battle Monuments Commission ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the battle and rededicating its Courts of the Missing.

The Honolulu Memorial’s limestone panels, which list the names of nearly 29,000 missing service members from World War II in the Pacific, the Korean War and Vietnam, recently underwent a $10 million renovation.

Because the limestone was staining without a way to improve it and also was chipping, the decision was made to replace it with a different type, officials said.

Representatives of the Tarawa families placed a bronze rosette next to their relative’s name, indicating that person had been accounted for. Six other families were represented by the organization History Flight, which has been key in finding and recovering remains from heavily redeveloped Betio.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was present for the ceremony, said in a news release that the monuments commission and National Cemetery Administration confirmed plans to build a $20.4 million interpretive center at Punchbowl.

“This new center will give visitors a better understanding of World War II in the Pacific, Hawaii’s role, and the sacrifices that so many made for our country, including those whose final resting place is at Punchbowl,” Schatz said.

Funding for the center has been secured in the 2019 military construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, Schatz said.

The Honolulu Memorial is administered by the monuments commission, while Punchbowl is part of the VA’s National Cemetery Administration.

Alexandra Bonnyman Prejean placed a rosette next to her father’s name in the

renovated Courts of the Missing. The Maui resident was a young girl when her father, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., went off to war.

During the Battle of Ta­rawa, Bonnyman, 33, directed demolition teams while he crawled 40 yards past friendly lines to place charges near a large Japanese bunker.

Bonnyman then led his men in an attack, directed the placement of charges at both entrances and positioned himself atop the bunker, “flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement,” according to military records.

He made a “heroic stand” on the edge of the structure before he fell, mortally wounded. Bonnyman posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 1947.

In 2015, History Flight discovered a burial on Betio with remains that were positively identified at a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab on Oahu as Bonnyman’s.

“I got to repatriate him (back to American soil) at Hickam,” said Prejean, calling it an “unbelievable” experience.

William Matz, secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, told about 100 people present that the courts and battle maps in adjacent galleries “reflect the very purpose”

of the commission, “and that is to commemorate service and sacrifice by ensuring that their achievements — their valor, their sacrifice — are never, ever forgotten.”

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The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) brings home the remains of unidentified U.S. servicemembers from the Battle of Tarawa during an honorable carry following the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the battle, Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam, Nov. 20, 2018.

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