BY DUANE A. VACHON – If you have ever been in Tennessee and crossed the Tennessee River on the Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Memorial Bridge, you might have wondered about Lt. Alexander Bonnyman.
Lt. Bonnyman, known as “Sandy” to his friends, was born on May 2nd 1910. He was a United States Marine Corps officer who was killed in action at Betio, Tarawa during World War II. A combat engineer, he received the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars and the World War II Victory Medal posthumously for extreme bravery during the strategically important assault on a Japanese bombproof shelter during the Battle of Tarawa.
Before I tell you about Lt. Bonnyman, there are a couple of issues I would like to clear up. In doing research for over 40 Medal of Honor Recipient articles, I have regularly seen the Medal referred to as “the Congressional Medal of Honor.” The correct name is four words “THE MEDAL OF HONOR.” It is often written that the Medal was won. It is not “won”, it is awarded for acts of extreme gallantry. More than half of the Medals of Honor that have been awarded since 1941 were awarded posthumously. Finally, it is not as many writers like to say “coveted.” It is respected and admired.
Although born in Atlanta, Georgia, when he was two years old Bonnyman’s parents moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father was President of the Blue Diamond Coal Company.
After graduating from the J.A. School in Knoxville, Bonnyman entered Princeton University. He was a first-stringer on Princeton’s football team.
After Princeton, he joined the Army Air Corps as a Flying Cadet on 28 June 1932 and was sent to the Preflight School at Randolph Field, Texas. He was honorably discharged 19 September 1932. It was reported that he was washed out “for buzzing too many control towers”.
Following his discharge, he went to work with his father, whose firm was one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States. On 15 February 1933, Bonnyman was married to Miss Josephine Bell at San Antonio, Texas. The couple would have three daughters: Frances, Josephine and Alexandra.
In 1938, Bonnyman acquired his own copper mine in the mountains about 60 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When WWII broke out, Bonnyman was exempt from any military obligation due to his age (33) and his role in running a company producing strategically vital material for the war effort.
Bonnyman did not let this stand in his way as he was determined to defend his country. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private at Phoenix, Arizona. He received his basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California. In October of 1942, Bonnyman sailed for the South Pacific, aboard the USS Matsonia with the 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division.
Combat in the final stages of the Guadalcanal campaign followed for the 6th Marines and the Tennessean had his first encounter with the Japanese. In February 1943 the Marine, now a corporal, received a field promotion to the rank of second lieutenant. The next step was Tarawa.
As they landed on D-Day 20 November, Bonnyman was Executive Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines’ Shore Party.
When the assault troops were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery fire at the seaward end of the long Betio Pier, Bonnyman on his own initiative organized and led the men over the open pier to the beach. There he voluntarily obtained flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists, and directed the blowing up of several hostile installations before the close of D-Day.
On the second day of the epic struggle for that strategically important piece of coral, Bonnyman was determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly defended defense line. He led his demolitions teams in an assault on the entrance to a huge bombproof shelter which contained approximately 150 Japanese soldiers.
This strong point was inflicting heavy casualties upon the Marines and was holding up their advance. The enemy position was about forty yards forward of the Marine lines. Bonnyman advanced his team to the mouth of the position, killing many of the defenders before the team was forced to withdraw to replenish their supply of ammunition and grenades.
On the third and final day of the Tarawa battle, Bonnyman, who was now 1st Lt. Bonnyman, renewed his attack upon the enemy position, leading his men in the placing of flame throwers and demolitions in both mouths of the cave.
Realizing that the seizure of this formidable bastion was imperative to make the Marine attack successful, Bonnyman pressed his attack and gained the top of the structure, flushing more than one hundred of its occupants in the open where they were shot down.
Assailed by additional Japanese, Bonnyman stood at the forward edge of the position and killed three of the attackers before he fell mortally wounded. His men beat off the counterattack and broke the back of the resistance. The island was declared secured on the day of Bonnyman’s death.
First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr.
United States Marine Corps Reserve
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the Second Battalion Shore Party, Eighth Marines, Second Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, from 20 to 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, First Lieutenant Bonny man 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 demolitions 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 forty 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 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 the 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 one hundred of the enemy, who were instantly cut down and effecting the annihilation of approximately one hundred and fifty 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 three of the enemy, before he fell, mortally wounded. By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout three days of unremitting, violent battle, First Lieutenant Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in the sector for an immediate gain of four hundred yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Harry S. Truman
President of the United States
First Lieutenant Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. was declared Missing in Action or Buried at Sea. His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.