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Coming Home

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July 27, 2015, TARAWA, Kiribati -- The 3rd Marine Division conducted a repatriation ceremony July 25, 2015 to honor the remains of at least 36 Marines in Tarawa, Kiribati, who fought and died during the Battle of Tarawa in World War II.

The Battle of Tarawa, also known as the 76-hour battle, took place from November 20-23, 1943 on the heavily fortified island of Betio, which was held by 4,500 Japanese troops. More than 18,000 U.S. Marines were sent to secure the island, but the corals reefs surrounding the island acted as a blockade and cause unexpected problems during the Marines’ amphibious assault.

When the battle finally ended, more than 1,000 U.S. troops had been killed in action and were left to become a piece of unrecoverable history. However, the Marine Corps has a saying: Never leave a Marine behind.

“Today provides for us the opportunity to bring home some Marines who were lost here during the Battle of Tarawa over 70 years ago,” said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Simcock, 3rd Marine Division commanding general. “Those Marines that gave their lives and ensured our way of life continued here in the Pacific were fully expected to come home, but it didn’t work out that way. Today we’ve filled that obligation for those Marines.”

In March 2015, History Flight, a privately owned organization working in cooperation with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, discovered a long-lost burial trench and recovered what are believed to be the remains of at least 36 U.S. Marines killed during the battle. One set of those remains is tentatively believed to be those of 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., who was one of four Medal of Honor recipients for his actions on Tarawa, and the only one whose remains have been unaccounted for.

The remains of the Marines were placed into American flag-draped caskets and loaded onto a C-130J Hercules aircraft during the ceremony.

“This ceremony I could not describe; it is one the most solemn ceremonies I’ve had the opportunity to participate in,” Simcock said. “Seeing those flag-draped coffins getting on the aircraft and knowing they’re going home, it makes me feel good as a Marine. For us it’s always about accountability and bringing our Marines home after the fight is over.”

After the final casket was loaded onto the aircraft, the audience remained still in a moment of silence as a bugler performed Ceremonial Taps.

Once the caskets were loaded aboard the aircraft, the C-130 departed from Tarawa to begin the transportation of the remains back to the U.S.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. had this to say upon the initial discovery: “I was very pleased to learn of the discovery of the remains of our Marines on the island of Tarawa [...] This battle demonstrated the indomitable fighting spirit of our Marines [...] The lessons learned there paved the way for our success in the Pacific campaign and eventual end to the war. We look forward to their return home.”

After transportation back to the U.S. has been completed, the remains will undergo DNA testing to confirm the identities of the Marines and will then be turned over to their respective families for burial with full military honors.

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