Man finds Medal of Honor recipient’s lost grave

Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. died in the Battle of Tawara in WWII, his grandson helped bring his remains home.
Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. died in the Battle of Tawara in WWII, his grandson helped bring his remains home.
Published: Jun. 30, 2022 at 3:18 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Every life has a story. No matter how long or how short each one deserves to be told. In this case, the unfortunate end to one life is where another begins.

First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., A Marine and Medal of Honor recipient, died in the Battle of Tawara in 1942 and his remains, along with several hundred other soldiers were lost.

“He became my hero from really literally the time I could speak and walk,” said Clay Bonnyman Evans, Bonnyman’s grandson.

“He was raised in Knoxville,” said Evans. “My great grandfather had the Blue Diamond Coal Company, which some may still remember...that’s what he was doing when Pearl Harbor happened in 1941. He was 31. He had children, he had a defense-related business and he did not have to go. But, he was quite upset and wanted to do his part so he decided to join the Marine Corps.”

Two months after being promoted to Lieutenant, he lead his men into a fight against more than 150 Japanese soldiers in the Battle of Tawara. “He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly standing at the leading edge of that bunker and holding off the counterattack Japanese,” said Evans.

“He was a legend in my family,” he said. A legend that never made it home. Even his remains were lost in Tarawa until Evans made it his mission to find his grandfather’s bones and bring him home.

“About 500 mostly Marines, a few Navy personnel, had never been recovered from this tiny, tiny island. So we didn’t know. In 2009 I discovered that he might be there and in 2010 I was lucky enough to connect with a nonprofit called History Flight, Inc. and work with them,” he said.

After years of searching, in 2015 they struck gold. Using his grandfather’s dental records and gold fillings to identify him. At that time, it was unusual for a soldier to have gold fillings but because he was older and more established they knew they could use this characteristic to identify him.

“It was so amazing to be there when we found him. Then I just knew how incredibly important it was that he’d be buried in Knoxville at Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery. Anybody in Knoxville can go right up there to that big hill, you’ll see the plot. His parents really wanted him found and brought back and buried there,” he said.

When his remains were brought home, he was given a hero’s welcome home, with full military honors. “It was raining and there were hundreds of people lining, I think, it was probably the Alcoa highway, out there with flags and veterans saluting. It was amazing.”

Evans wrote a book about his journey called “Bones of my Grandfather.” He said it’s his life’s mission to spiritually excavate him as well. “I just feel incredibly grateful. I’m pretty sure on my deathbed this will be you know, one of the things in my life I’m most proud of, that I get to be a part of this.

You can see a permanent exhibit honoring Lt. Bonnyman Jr. right now at the Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, TN. There you will find his Medal of Honor, artifacts, and the Western Union Telegram that was sent to his family when he died in 1943.

The Medal of Honor Convention is taking place in Knoxville from September 6th-10th.

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