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Gold fillings and family grit helped solve the 71-year-old mystery of a veteran’s burial

🕐 8 min read

Clay Bonnyman Evans was 5,000 miles from home, deep in a pit on the Pacific island of Betio, when he heard the words his family had awaited for so long.

“It’s gold,” announced Kristen Baker. With a brush, the archaeologist gently swept the sand off an unmistakable shape: a human skeleton _ with a mouth full of gilded fillings.

“It’s gold.”

Two words to end a 71-year wait. Two words to solve a mystery that had vexed Evans’s family for four generations. Two words to give a long-lost war hero the happy ending he deserved.

First Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr. was finally coming home.

For the better part of a century, the Medal of Honor recipient was literally lost to the chaos and carnage of World War II. His grave said “Buried at sea,” but his family knew better. Sandy Bonnyman was entombed _ somewhere.

The story of how Evans, a 53-year-old freelance journalist from Colorado, tracked down his grandfather’s remains is almost as incredible as Bonnyman’s heroics. It involves gunfights and flamethrowers, radar and drones, mass graves and a cadaver dog named Buster.

“It is incredible,” Evans told The Washington Post. “Just incredible.”

he tale begins on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sandy Bonnyman was a miner near Santa Fe, New Mexico. He had already served a stint in the Army and was now 31 years old. But when he heard the news, he reenlisted, this time in the Marines.

By the time he landed on Tarawa Atoll, a string of strategically important islands in the middle of the Pacific, Bonnyman was the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines’ Shore Party.

For three days in late November 1943, the Marines tried to take Betio from the Japanese. Bonnyman led his party across the island, destroying enemy outposts as he went.

“On the second day of the epic struggle for that strategically important piece of coral, 1st Lt. Bonnyman, determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly defended defense line, led his demolitions teams in an assault on the entrance of a huge bombproof shelter which contained approximately 150 Japanese soldiers,” according to the Marine Corps’ official biography. “This strong point was inflicting heavy casualties upon the Marines and was holding up their advance.”

After a day of attacking the shelter, Bonnyman led a full-on assault. Using flamethrowers and explosives, he and his men forced the Japanese into the open. Most of the enemy were shot as they left the shelter, but several attacked Bonnyman.

“Assailed by additional Japanese, he stood at the forward edge of the position and killed three of the attackers before he fell mortally wounded,” Marine Corps records state. “His men beat off the counterattack and broke the back of the resistance. The island was declared secured on the day of 1st Lt. Bonnyman’s death.”

His family back in Knoxville, Tennessee, received news of his death a few weeks later. Bonnyman’s wife and 12-year-old daughter, Frances, traveled to Washington to receive his Medal of Honor.

But if the story of Bonnyman’s heroics was well recorded, the location of his body was not. As the Marines moved to secure the island and press on through the Pacific, they hurriedly buried their men in mass graves.

And so started a mystery that would stretch out for 71 years.

Bonnyman’s parents desperately tried to discover where their son had been buried.

“They got all these stories, that he was buried here or there,” Evans told The Washington Post in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. “Until finally my great-grandfather gave up and bought a headstone that said ‘Buried at Sea.’ “

“It kind of shattered their family,” he said.

Evans grew up believing that his grandfather was buried in an anonymous grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a lush, circular cemetery in Honolulu nicknamed “The Punchbowl.”

But in 2009, he learned that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, was planning to return to Tarawa to try to identify the remains of American Marines.

When Evans looked into the project, however, he learned that it was really being pushed along by a small, Florida-based nonprofit called History Flight. Evans reached out to the organization’s founder, Mark Noah, who agreed to meet him in Tarawa.

In August 2010, Evans flew the 5,726 miles from Colorado to the archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And while he wasn’t impressed with JPAC, Evans admired Noah and his team at History Flight. The nonprofit has found scores of veterans’ bodies across the Pacific theater.

“I reached a conclusion that I was going to hitch my cart to this little bitty nonprofit because I could see the dedication and the determination there,” Evans said. “I honestly never saw that with JPAC, so I said, ‘Hey, Mark, I want to work with you.'”

Over the next five years, Evans would go back four more times to the now overcrowded island. (Betio is barely a mile long but home to nearly 20,000 people.)

“I’ve done all kinds of volunteer stuff for them: I have dug holes, I have sifted sand, I have cleaned bones, I have done PR work, I have called families looking for DNA samples,” Evans said. “I have done anything that they have wanted me to do, and I’ve been happy to do it, because they’ve gotten results.”

Results meaning bodies. Lots of them. But never Sandy Bonnyman.

Finally, in late March of this year, Noah called Evans and said he thought his team was close to finding his grandfather. Using ground-penetrating radar, old military maps, the latest GPS technology, remote-controlled drones and Buster, a cadaver dog from California, they had found a trench _ dubbed Cemetery 27 _ where Bonnyman was thought to lie. Evans flew to Tarawa once more, but a lot of work remained.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said. “In archeology, six inches is as good as a million miles, because if you miss what you are looking for, then you missed it.”

For two weeks, Evans, Baker, Noah and others dug for bodies. They found more than a dozen of them. Each time, Baker would check the teeth for Bonnyman’s distinctive gold fillings _ the benefit of being a bit older and a touch wealthier than his fellow Marines. But no luck.

Finally, on May 28, Baker was inspecting body No. 16 when she spotted another skeleton barely a foot away. She carefully scraped away the sand from around the skull. Then she began to brush clean the century-old teeth.

That’s when she spotted the gold.

When Evans heard the word, he dropped his camera in shock.

“I definitely had tears in my eyes thinking about my great grandparents, who lost their son, and my mom and my aunt, who lost their father,” he said.

The mystery was over, but the story wasn’t complete.

Evans helped Baker finish excavating body No. 16. The next day, May 29, they spent hunched over Sandy Bonnyman’s bones. It wasn’t until May 30 that Evans could properly reflect on the achievement. He went for a morning run, and then he did something that surprised even himself.

He climbed into his grandpa’s grave.

“After I got done with my run, I went back to that grave and I sat there and I did my meditation there,” he said. “That’s when I allowed myself to have more feelings. I went back and sat right on that sand where he had been resting for the last 71 and a half years. It was pretty powerful for me.”

Evans said he couldn’t take much credit for finding his grandfather’s remains. That, he said, should go to Noah and History Flight.

“This little organization did in 2 ½ years what my family has been told for the past 70 years couldn’t be done,” he said.

Evans is now finishing a book about Bonnyman’s remarkable life and his own efforts to locate the World War II hero’s remains.

“It’s an attempt to give him back a full human life rather than just that little Wikipedia legend that everybody knows,” Evans said.

But even as Evans and his family celebrate finding Bonnyman, the Marine’s bones remain on Betio. Although his body has been positively identified from his dental records, JPAC must follow certain procedures in removing and investigating it.

Evans said his family plans on finally laying Bonnyman to rest on September 26 in Knoxville.

“We’re going to bury him under that headstone that says ‘Buried at sea,'” Evans said. When asked if he was going to change the inscription, he replied: “Hell no.”

“I think it’s a delicious historical irony that should stand for all time,” he said. “Really, because it’s kind of this marker of everything that happened. It never offended me that he was on that island. That little island took incredible care of him for the past seven decades. His bones are almost perfect.”

Evans can’t say as much for the way the American government treated him and his family.

“In Washington speak, many mistakes were made,” he said.

But the important thing is giving 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr. the hero’s farewell that he deserved 71 years ago.

“It’s going to be a really big deal to bury him where his parents wanted him to be,” Evans said. “I have all these tragic letters showing my great-grandfather desperately trying to get him back, and he never did. They all died without knowing the truth.

“I’m not a wooo person,” he said, making an eerie noise. “I don’t believe in ghosts or whatever. But I still feel like I’ve been able to play a little part in closing the circle for the family.

“And I feel great about that.”

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