November 2018

Excerpts from Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Hero of World War II

Author: Clay Bonnyman Evans | Photographer: Clay Bonnyman Evans

From Chapter Ten
Proud to Claim the Title: June 1942-November 1943

On October 19, 1942, my grandfather, Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr., boarded the USS Matsonia as part of Headquarters Company, 6th Marines, arriving in Wellington, New Zealand, on November 4. Wellington was about as close to home as a marine could get overseas, reminding many of San Francisco with its wharves, hills, and temperate climate. When the marines weren’t training, they enjoyed milkshakes and ice cream sodas at the city’s many “milk bars,” ate hearty meals of fresh lamb, beef, and eggs, and drank Waitemata beer and eye-opening Australian “jump whiskey,” a “villainous, green Mexican distillation.”

On November 25, my grandfather was promoted to corporal and appointed to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 18th Marine Regiment, “to take full advantage of his talent and ability … (as an) engineer.” His experience in the mining business had prepared him well for such a role, and he was excited to be “back in my old trade.”

The New York Times editorial page wrote admiringly of combat engineers: “They are masters of many trades, men-of-all-work as well as men-at-arms. … They lay and unlay mines, dig trenches, run railroads and railroad shops, make bridges, roads, fortifications, airports, bomb-proofs, gun emplacements, barracks, anything buildable. They map and camouflage. They are photographers and cinematographers. They incinerate, refrigerate, disinfect. They are first-class plumbers. They attend to the water supply. They are expert handlers of explosives and all tools, including a rifle and a bayonet. One of their favorite sports is tossing a flame-thrower at a pillbox. … They are real Yanks of the Yankiest kind.”

Sandy’s 18th Engineers, aka Pioneers, were among some 3,800 marines billeted alongside the Third Wellington Regiment of the New Zealand Army in the Judgeford Valley, a bucolic farming community north of Wellington. He boarded the USS President Jackson December 24 and spent Christmas at anchor in Wellington Harbor before sailing for the Solomon Islands to mop up after the First Marine Division, which had been fighting—and winning—the grinding jungle campaign on Guadalcanal since August. He made landfall on January 4, 1943.

Engineers were jacks-of-all-trades on the island, serving as everything from infantry to demolitions experts to bridge builders. Sandy Bonnyman’s most notable task in his six weeks on “the canal” was supervising construction of a pontoon bridge over the Toha River. His team labored from daylight until dark and bivouacked on the river, where Japanese artillery or machine-gun fire kept them awake half the night. In the morning they breakfasted on scalding coffee and hardtack before getting back to work.

“It was due to Sandy’s energy, ingenuity, and his personality that he was able to have his men erect this bridge in record time,” Col. Gilder D. Jackson, Jr. recalled.
Bonny, as his marine buddies now called my grandfather, made little fuss over his first taste of combat, when his reconnaissance team surprised eight Japanese fighters, killing three.

Stories of a dramatic jungle ambush and bridge building make good copy. But on Guadalcanal, as it would be on Tarawa, it was Sandy Bonnyman’s leadership and work ethic that won the respect of his fellow marines. As Jackson wrote, “He was always cheerful, ready to work 24 hours a day without rest, and was always to be found in the front line, trying to do some job that would make the infantry advance a little bit easier.”

Sandy’s hard work paid off, and on February 7, 1943, he received a commission as a second lieutenant. His commanding officer, Capt. Joseph Clerou, recommended that he be given command of a company once the Second Marine Division had finished up on Guadalcanal. Seven months after entering the Marine Corps as a private, against the odds, my grandfather was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Bonnyman family was elated at the news, and with good reason. At Guadalcanal, enlisted men of the First Marine Division had been killed at nearly twice the rate of officers, a ratio that would be matched at Tarawa.

On February 19, the marines handed Guadalcanal over to the Army and 2nd Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Jr. sailed back to New Zealand aboard the USS President Adams. Having tasted combat, he was eager for more.

“When we do get another chance,” he wrote his wife Josephine in Santa Fe, “I believe we will do a good job. We certainly pray and hope so because the First Division certainly gave us a mark at which to shoot.”

But it would be nine long months before the Second Marine Division engaged the enemy again.

From Chapter Eighteen
Striking Gold: 2014-2015
By the time I walked over to the dig site my first day back on the tiny island of Betio, Tarawa Atoll, Republic of Kiribati, the sun was high and hot. History Flight archaeologist Kristen Baker and former Army Special Forces medic John Frye had fully exposed the remains in grave #8 of what we now knew was long-lost Cemetery 27, carefully removing and wrapping every bone, fragment, and piece of material evidence—the rubber soles of boondockers, the standard-issue U.S. Marine combat boots; shreds of sock; ammunition clips; and more—in aluminum foil before placing it into large plastic evidence bags.

Like three-quarters of the remains that eventually would be recovered from Cemetery 27, those in #8 were wrapped in a green, rubberized canvas poncho. Like all but three of the marines reported to have been buried in the trench, Pfc. James Mansfield was killed on the first day of fighting but wasn’t buried until several days later. Given the advanced state of decomposition, burial details simply wrapped remains in ponchos, apparently making little or no effort to remove gear or personal items.

Exhuming poncho-covered remains day after day, Kristen was seeing the fascinating effects of the moisture-retaining microenvironment, which had preserved a host of typically biodegradable materials, including leather, hair, even a pack of Camel cigarettes. But the moisture inside the ponchos also made many bones porous and fragile.

“Things fall apart,” Kristen murmured down in the hole, quoting Yeats.

I had seen bits and pieces of human remains in my previous work with History Flight on Betio, as well as the skeletons of Pfc. Randolph Allen and four Japanese at Cemetery 26, but this was the first time I was able to get in for a closer look.
The soles of Mansfield’s boots seemed so human and awoke me to the reality of what lay before me.

“Jesus, I don’t want to die alone,” Johnny Cash sang mournfully from Kristen’s boom box on the edge of the hole.

Kristen worked assiduously to follow and even surpass the standard operating procedures she learned while working at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is tasked with locating and recovering missing U.S. battlefield remains (in 2015, Congress merged JPAC with another agency to create the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Agency). When a JPAC team recovered three sets of remains from Cemetery 25 in 2012, they didn’t bother collecting every tiny toe or finger bone or fragment of rib, but Kristen was intent on preserving even the smallest grain of evidence, right down to sock threads that fit on the tip of her little finger.

“They have good standards, but I tend to go above and beyond,” she said. “It’s a matter of respect, too. These guys deserve the best treatment we can give them.”
Based on solid provisional identifications of remains whose grave locations neatly corresponded with archival records, Kristen was confident that we were on track to find my grandfather in grave #17. When we did—if we did—his teeth would provide virtually instant confirmation of his identity: Kristen had practically memorized his dental chart, which revealed extensive work and multiple gold restorations. Upon examining each successive set of remains, Kristen took to pronouncing, “No gold.”

“Gold was very expensive and unusual at the time, and there weren’t very many people, particularly in the marines, who had gold bridges and fillings,” she said. “In the 40 people buried here, only maybe three or four had any gold fillings at all.”
After so many years of anticipation, my mind refused to share her confidence, and in my jittery state, I constantly imagined nightmare scenarios: “Unfortunately, it looks like there’s been extensive disturbance after #15…” or “There’s a trash pit where your grandfather should be….”

When I got to the dig site at 8 a.m. on May 28, 2015, the team had shovel-shaved about two feet into the sand, exposing the butt of a green, World War II-era Japanese beer bottle in the south-facing wall. At mid-morning, sand began to trickle into a small, oval void below the beer bottle. Kristen, sporting one of her trademark skull bandanas, pulled on blue latex surgical gloves and gently palpated the hole.

“It’s the edge of a helmet,” she said. “There is a cranium inside.”

Over the next few minutes, she carefully brushed away sand, keeping it level and smooth. As I looked over her shoulder, something else came into view: a small, smooth patch of brown just a few inches from the helmet. My heart began to thud faster.

“Another cranium,” Kristen said evenly.

She continued to expose the area, singing along with Shinedown’s rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man: “Boy, don’t you worry, you’ll find yourself/Follow your heart and nothing else … And be a simple kind of man/Oh, be something you love and understand….”

I’d always seen a little of myself in the song, but now I thought of my grandfather: “Take your time, don’t live too fast/Troubles will come and they will pass.”
Goosebumps prickled my skin in the tropical heat and I raised the video camera to my eye, focusing on Kristen’s blue-gloved hands. I held my breath, trying to hold steady. From behind me, I heard John say, “Yup.”

A split second later, Kristen said the word I’d been waiting to hear: “Gold.”

Clay Bonnyman Evans is the author of Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II, Skyhorse Publishing, 300 pp. w/black-and-white and color photos. $24.99. The book is available at bookstores and online retailers everywhere. (Note: Footnotes from the published edition have been removed from these excerpts.) For more information, visit

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