Tarawa – the fight for ‘Bonnyman’s Hill’

Lt Bonnyman has been indicated by an arrow, right of centre, as he leads his men in another assault.

Lt Bonnyman has been indicated by an arrow, right of centre, as he leads his men in another assault.

Marines still on the beach taking cover from snipers as they watch their fighter bombers come in to blast Japanese positions.

Marines still on the beach taking cover from snipers as they watch their fighter bombers come in to blast Japanese positions.

During the first day the Marines had spent time shooting snipers out of the trees only to see more creep back overnight and threaten them the second day. The Japanese also occupied broken down U.S. vehicles on the beach and in the water, using these as sniping positions until they got blasted out. Against such suicidal tactics casualties steadily mounted but the Marines gradually enlarged their bridgehead and began to prevail.

The third day saw the breakthrough they wanted. The Marines were able to bring in reserves and more heavy weapons arrived. Robert Sherrod was to witness the Japanese collapse:

This was the day the Japs fell apart. There were many factors in this rout.

Another company of light tanks and a few thirty-two ton tanks had a field day with the Japs, who cowered in their pillboxes and waited for death. Armored half tracks, mounting 75-mm guns, paraded up and down Betio all day, pouring high explosives into pillboxes, carrying Marine riflemen who killed Japs whenever they dared stick their heads up. The men with the flamethrowers killed many hundreds in their fortifications, or outside their fortifications.

Our line across the island had held during the night, preventing any fresh Japs from filtering towards the scenes of the toughest fighting. On the third day the question was not, ‘How long will it take to kill them all?’ but, ‘How few men can we expect to lose before killing the rest of the Japs?’

See Robert Sherrod: Tarawa.

It was by no means a one sided massacre and many Marines died in this final fight. In many cases it was still the actions of individual men who turned the situation. Nowhere was this more true than in the fight for a Japanese strongpoint that subsequently became known as ‘Bonnyman’s Hill’.

First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., awarded posthumous Medal of Honor

First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., awarded posthumous Medal of Honor.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 18th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20-22 November 1943.

Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day.

Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance.

Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement.

Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded.

By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

For more background on the action and Lt. Bonnyman see U.S.M.C.

The scene on Red Beach 2 on Betio island as the Marines consolidate their position.

The scene on Red Beach 2 on Betio island as the Marines consolidate their position.

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