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New search at Tarawa for remains of Marines

Almost 1,000 Marines died in the fierce battle in the Gilbert Islands in late November 1943

Aug. 28, 2010 - 02:00PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2010 - 02:00PM  |  
This photo by retired Maj. Norman T. Hatch shows action during the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943.
This photo by retired Maj. Norman T. Hatch shows action during the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. ()
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HONOLULU — The Battle of Tarawa was one of the first U.S. amphibious campaigns of World War II. It was also one of the most ferocious.

Thousands of Marines charged the beach, only to be mowed down by Japanese machine gun fire when their boats got stuck on the coral reef. Hundreds of Marines died, and thousands more were injured in just three days of fighting.

Sixty-seven years later, the U.S. military is back on the tiny Pacific atoll just 80 miles north of the equator to search for the remains of Marines who never made it home.

An 11-person team from the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command could find a couple hundred Marines during the largest mission of its kind at Tarawa, said JPAC spokesman Army Maj. Ramon Osorio.

They're surveying six sites at spots ranging from people's front yards to a cemetery. They're expected back in Hawaii in late September, although the team could extend its stay if needed.

"There's not a place we will not go looking when it comes to finding our guys," Osorio said. "There's just so many families still waiting for the final word on what took place."

In November 1943, Tarawa was a heavily defended Japanese outpost halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Today it's a densely populated part of Kiribati, a poor nation of 33 coral atolls straddling the equator.

Tarawa is a string of narrow islets curved around an aquamarine lagoon. At the far southern end lies Betio — just 2.5 miles long and 700 yards wide — where the Marines came ashore.

After the battle, the Navy buried the bodies it found. But many of those grave sites have since been moved, complicating JPAC's search.

The military has surveyed Tarawa sites since the war ended but not on the scale of the current mission.

Osorio said devices like ground penetrating radar, which can detect anomalies in the soil, have helped JPAC find likely burial sites. The military also has technology to identify remains — like DNA analysis — that it lacked in past decades.

One spot JPAC surveyed this month is in front of a woman's home. Osorio, who returned to Hawaii from Tarawa last week, said the JPAC team had to temporarily replant papaya trees while excavating her entire front yard. They put everything back when they were done, and bought her a few more fruit trees to boot.

It's challenging to work in the heat, but Osorio said the team gets a shot of energy whenever they find remains or other evidence.

"They get pretty motivated when they know that potentially they're closer to closing the books on a family's situation," Osorio said.

Even so, it's likely to be months or years before JPAC finishes the painstaking process of matching the bodies it's retrieved with DNA samples collected from relatives.

The battle and the search for Marines left behind has gained more attention recently because of the documentary "Return to Tarawa" broadcast on the Military Channel.

The long-ago U.S. battle plan was to have 3,000 Marines on the beach in 30 minutes. Instead, the Americans took hours getting there, and paid dearly.

Navy planes and ships had bombed Japanese defenses beforehand, but commanders dramatically underestimated how many Japanese would survive the assault.

Transport boats carrying Marines then got stuck on the reef because the Americans misread the ocean and mistakenly attacked at low tide.

Japanese machine guns massacred Marines who were forced to abandon their boats and wade ashore. Many Marines never made it out of the water. Hand-to-hand combat awaited those who reached the beach.

More than 990 U.S. Marines and 30 sailors died, while almost 2,300 were wounded. Only 17 of the 3,500 Japanese troops survived. Of 1,200 Korean slave laborers brought to the island by Japan, just 129 lived.

Marine Corps historians say the 76-hour battle cost comparable casualties to the Guadalcanal campaign, which lasted six months.

Although the U.S. committed painful mistakes, it learned lessons about amphibious warfare it would apply as it pushed west across the Pacific to defeat Japan and end the war.

"The capture of Tarawa," said Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander at the time, "knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific."

Four Medals of Honor — the nation's highest award for combat valor — were earned at Tarawa. Thirty-four Navy Crosses were issued, along with some 250 Silver Stars.

Medals of Honor earned at Tarawa

• http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=90">1st Lt. Alexander ‘Sandy' Bonnyman (posthumously)

• http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3323">Staff Sgt. William James Bordelon (posthumously)

• http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3238">1st Lt. William Deane Hawkins (posthumously)

• http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=624">Cpl. David Monroe Shoup

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