Kendall Aronson, Campus Carrier Social Media Director
Martha Berry isn’t the only notable member of the Berry family tree. Her nephew bravely lost his life in WWII, and his body was then lost for almost 75 years before his grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans, recovered it. Evans has recently written a book about this experience and will come to Berry on October 6 to talk about his grandfather’s story.
Martha Berry’s nephew, Alexander Bonnyman Jr., had already served in the Army when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He immediately re-enlisted in the Marines. When he arrived in Japanese-controlled Betio, Tarawa, he led an assault on a Japanese bunker which eventually cost him his life. The island was secured on the day of his death, according to the Washington Post. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on that day.
His parents attempted to recover his body but were unsuccessful and eventually elected to list on his headstone “Buried at Sea.” His eldest daughter was given the Medal of Honor in his absence, and much to his family’s dismay, his body remained lost.
To his grandson, Evans, Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was the medal on the wall, and his personal hero.
“It was on the wall in every house I ever knew growing up,” Evans said. “My grandfather was almost like a mythical hero on the wall there.”
He didn’t know much about his grandfather’s life, and no one else in his family seemed to. On a family trip to Hawaii, his mother told him that his grandfather had been buried there in the National Cemetery as an unknown, and he never questioned this until 2009 when his Aunt Alix emailed him about a government agency, which was going to Tarawa to uncover the bodies of the WWII veterans who were still buried overseas there. His grandfather’s name was among those listed to be excavated.
Evans, now a journalist, freelance writer and author, decided at that moment that he and his family could not go on without knowing the truth about his grandfather.
The first time he went to Tarawa in 2010, he went to observe the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command work. To Evans, the agency did not seem to be putting much effort into actually discovering the bodies of those missing.
Evans discovered History Flight, a non-profit which attempts to discover the bodies of World War II veterans still missing overseas, led by Mark Noah. The organization had been doing active research since 2007 and active digging since 2013. Currently, they have identified over 120 remains, though there are hundreds still missing.
“If anyone was going to get this done, it was going to be this little non-profit,” Evans said.
After years of working with History Flight, Noah told Evans that they may know the whereabouts of his grandfather, on the small island of Betio.
Betio is about one square kilometer of land populated by trees, 1,500 impoverished people and their homes. This makes it extremely difficult to locate the island and find room for tasks such as transporting all of the equipment, which was the most difficult part in recovering his grandfather. There were even trained dogs that are necessary for finding the bodies in such a small space. They located Evans’ grandfather in a long-lost burial trench called Cemetery 27 along with 45 other Marines in 2015, identifying him through his golden teeth, which were uncommon for the time.
“I was privileged to be a part of the effort to locate his remains but the credit for that goes to Mark Noah and History Flight,” Evans said. “Mark, like my grandfather, was doggedly determined. He refused to give up and he made it happen. Without Mark Noah, I feel very confident that we would never have found my grandfather.”
The Bonnyman-Evans-Berry family finally laid Alexander Bonnyman Jr. to rest on Sept 27, four months after they originally found him. Evans continues to work with History Flight to recover remains for more families. He will be returning to Tarawa this December.
Fueled by a need to find out the truth of his grandfather’s story, Evans began to write a book long before Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was found. While Evans admits that the book likely would not have been published without them actually finding his grandfather, he knew that he wanted to chronicle his grandfather’s life for the sake of his family.
“What I discovered was that he was an amazingly heroic person just as the stories all told, but he was more than that,” Evans said. “He was complicated, he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t Superman. He was an interesting guy with an interesting personality. He was an adventurous guy. Some people said impetuous some said fearless. He was a leader of the sorts that don’t really come along anymore. He inspired people.”
The book, “Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II”, is both the story of Alexander Bonnyman Jr. and the story of Evans and Noah finding and retrieving his actual remains. The hardest part of writing the story was figuring out the best structure to tell this story. He did at least six complete rewrites of the book before settling on what it is today.
“It consumed my life for many years,” Evans said.
Evans said he’s excited to talk to the Berry community about his book. He will give a presentation on his grandfather and his journey to recover him on Thursday Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. in the Christopher Browning Pavillion at Oak Hill. He will sign books after the lecture.
“I love Berry College, I think it’s such an amazing and cool school,” Evans said. “I love the fact that people in the Berry community and in Rome are interested in the Berry story. I just love the fact that people care about this history and it brings a smile to my face.”