Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II by Clay Bonnyman Evans
In Bones of My Grandfather, Clay Evans recalls his boyhood fascination with World War II, specifically being mesmerized by his mother’s father, a war hero “whose legend had hung like a morning mist in the deep hollows of family lore.” Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. died in battle on November 23, 1943 while leading a U.S. Marine assault against a Japanese stronghold on Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands. In his final moments, Bonnyman’s actions were instrumental in the Allied success in the offensive and posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor.
After the Allied invasion of Guadalcanal in the nearby Solomon Islands, the Japanese recognized the Gilberts’ strategic significance in the war’s Pacific Theater and fortified the island of Betio, on Tarawa’s southwest end, building an airstrip there. The Allies became convinced they needed to take Betio and its airstrip from which to attack Japan’s home islands, and they also believed they needed to master the art of amphibious assault in order to win the war in the Pacific. Betio would be the place to do that.
The Battle of Tarawa was brutal. Nearly 5000 Japanese soldiers (including Koreans whom the Japanese had pressed into service) and more than 1000 Americans lost their lives during the bloody 76-hour melee on the tiny island of Betio. Rotting bodies were quickly buried, and the graves of half the Americans were later, for a number of reasons detailed in this memoir, lost. Graves located in the elusive “Cemetery 27” were particularly problematic to locate and this, it seemed, was where Evans’ grandfather lay.
Evans deftly weaves three separate narratives in Bones of My Grandfather: the story of Sandy Bonnyman, who as a prominent American businessman in his thirties enlisted as a private in the U.S. Marines and quickly rose to the rank of First Lieutenant; the history of the American invasion of Tarawa; and the story of Evans’ own five-year odyssey to locate his grandfather’s remains on Tarawa and bring them home.
On his first trip to Tarawa in 2010, Evans got a taste of the dysfunction and bureaucratic sniping that characterized JPAC, the governmental agency responsible for recovery efforts there. He was also in communication with History Flight, an NGO that had racked up thousands of hours researching “the lost graves of Tarawa.” JPAC viewed Evans as a plant for History Flight, and they excluded him from playing any material role in their archaeological operation. The chilly reception jarred Evans into the realization that he is under no one’s command on Tarawa and fueled his determination. “I hadn’t come halfway around the world to be treated like an enemy spy, take juvenile insults, and watch people digging holes all day.”
Evans recounts the brave deeds of Sandy Bonnyman and his fellow marines while probing beneath the whitewashed facade that history placed on his grandfather. In Bones of My Grandfather, he reveals a man not without character defects; he sheds a stark light on the toll that Bonnyman’s heroism took on his fractured family after the war; and he tells the story of the men and women who, in their perseverance in finding Tarawa’s lost graves, are heroes in their own right.