The Lost Graves of Tarawa

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The island of Tarawa today is an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, a former British colony of the Gilbert Islands. It consists of 24 islets, eight of which are inhabited principally by a Micronesian population that subsists on some minor exports and on air from New Zealand. But until November 1943, Tarawa was a major stronghold of the Japanese Imperial Army. Realizing its strategic importance, more than 4,400 troops as well as Korean conscripts and slave laborers built an impenetrable network of bunkers and pillboxes to defend the island from attackers.

As early at 1919, American military strategists had identified Tarawa as a critical stepping stone for a possible invasion of Japan if that time ever came. The plan was called War Plan Orange.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the United States implemented the plan, an "island hopping" campaign which ended in giving American forces a foothold that allowed them to establish airfields within B-29 striking distance of Tokyo, the beginning of the end.

The Assault Begins
During the early morning hours of 20 November 1943, Marines of the 2nd Marine Division mounted an amphibious attack against the Japanese stronghold on Betio Island, at the southwestern end of the Tarawa Atoll. The battle lasted 72 hours, and would become infamous for the high number of casualties American forces suffered.

Although the American invasion force was the largest yet assembled for a single operation, consisting of 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, eight heavy and four light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transports, to carry and supply a total of more than 35,000 soldiers and Marines, the Japanese defenders exacted a heavy toll. More than 1,677 American died, 2,296 more were wounded. Only 17 of the Japanese defenders of the island survived.

The pain suffered as a result of the battle was compounded for many Americans because the bodies of many of the Marines who lost their lives were buried on the island and never recovered after the war. One of those burial sites contains the remains of Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading his platoon of Marines in a strategically important assault on a Japanese bombproof shelter during the battle.

After more than 14 years of research, Mark Noah, a World War II history buff in Marathon, Florida, started raising money for a mission to the South Pacific islands to find those missing men, and cause the military’s Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command to launch a formal investigation into bringing those remains home for burials with full military honors.

"There is plenty of evidence that the remains are there," Noah explained. "The chaplain who was responsible for graves registration kept meticulous records of who was buried, along with information such as service number, branch of service, date of death, nature of wounds, but Tarawa was only the first step in the American campaign to reach Tokyo, so at the time our troops had more pressing things to do than to tend to bodies, and space was at a premium due to their need for the airfield on the island, so the remains were lost in the shuffle."

"Five of the burial sites have had U.S. Marine remains accidentally dug up during the extensive construction activity that has taken place over the years," Noah said. "As a result, we have known generally where they are buried, but having the remains found, identified, and returned for burial and to give families of the missing men a sense of closure is our foremost goal."

Back to the Island
In November 2008, Noah and members of a survey team from Wfi Research Group (Fall River, Mass), began the project of finding the missing graves. Using Mala X3M Ground Penetrating Radar with 250 MHZ antennas and a survey quality Trimble GPS system donated for the trip by Ashtead Equipment of Atlanta, GA, the search began in earnest.

The team set up a network to map the known burial locations. As the project progressed, additional data was collected concerning other potential burial sites, which were also investigated with the GPR and mapped.

According to Ted Darcy, president of Wfi Research Group (Fall River, MA), since the graves were dug by bulldozers in long trenches, the search team was able to use the GPR in a cross-cut method to determine the exact location of the graves, which previously had only been known by their general location. After the exact boundaries of the graves were determined, GPS gave surveyors geo-referenced points for maps.

"The trouble we continually faced in this project was that it seemed like every time we turned around we found yet another burial location," Noah explained. "This is not surprising considering men were buried whenever there was a lull in the fighting and wherever they fell. The troops had a monstrous sanitation problem with not only thousands of bodies decomposing in the tropical sun, but the rotting food and excreta of more than 30,000 men forced them to do whatever they could, wherever they could, and any time they could. As we soon found out, bodies were buried everywhere on that island in several individual unit cemeteries as well as combined cemeteries."

All told, more than 43 burial locations were found on the island, each containing from one set of remains to hundreds at different locations.

GIS maps provided a central repository for data collected from not only burial records, but also from the positional data gathered in the field with GPR equipment as well as oral records from survivors as well as the island’s inhabitants.

According to Noah, "It wasn’t long before we were able to combine the ability to gather burial information about individual casualties and the positional data recovered with our GPR to create a GPS-fueled map that would be immensely valuable in proving our case to the Joint Identification Lab who would ultimately be tasked with finding and identifying the remains, which is a holistic approach that would have been impossible not long ago before we had access to these technologies."

After about a month of searching and a second trip taken in January, 2008, a total of 139 sets of remains had been found.

Tarawa is the first of 14 projects we hope to accomplish in the coming years," Darcy said. "There were numerous problems encountered with the Tarawa project but we were able to overcome them all. "From the beginning, the Army botched the job of recovering the dead on Tarawa, and they were of no help to us in fixing the problem. In fact, they wanted $ 30 for each record of personnel lost on the island. Instead, we found original burial records. That’s how we were able to tell the searchers where to look."

Noah emphasizes that the intent of the project was never to uncover remains. "I’m not a professional archaeologist, just an amateur historian interested in the subject," he said. "The pros should do the actual digging. That way we are preserving the integrity of the study so those who know a lot more about what they are doing can do their jobs."

On 27 April 2008, Noah turned over a report of his findings to the Department of Defense POW-MIA Office and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

"It’s kind of an unwritten understanding that when a service member dies in combat, his body will be identified and buried with full military honors. It’s sad that these fellows have stayed buried this long without being found and returned, but it’s also u
nderstandable since these offices are so busy with more recent losses that they have difficulty starting new searches without a lot of evidence as to where these graves might be located. Fortunately, shortly after we delivered our report to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, we received communication from his office, thanking us for our effort and promising action on the matter."

In the News
"When this project started, we were concerned about contacting the families of those lost to let them know of finding their next-of-kin, but as the publicity about this project unfolded, many of these families have instead contacted us for information," Noah explained. "These families have been waiting for their closure for more than 66 years. We owe that to them. And we owe the right to come home to all the fellows we lost."

According to officials of History Flight, as of 2010, an additional burial location has been discovered with an estimated 100 more burials located. Efforts are now underway to excavate more remains.

Unfortunately, many of the Tarawa missing will probably never be found and/or identified. Those lost in the waters surrounding the island will probably never be found. Further, approximately 93 sets of remains were classified as unidentified/unknown and were returned and buried at the National Memorial of the Pacific at Punchbowl in Hawaii.

"Of course, we understand that it would be impossible for us to find and identify every set of remains," Noah concedes, "but I think we owe the men who were lost as well as their families our best effort. That’s what I want to see done."

Mike Michelsen is a freelance writer in Riverside, California.

A 6.069Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE