The National Museum of the Marine Corps has acquired a large collection of battlefield relics from the 20–23 November 1943 Battle of Tarawa—a trove of World War II artifacts collected in recent years by History Flight, a nonprofit archaeological organization dedicated to researching and locating American service members still missing in action from the nation’s wars.
In 2015–16, History Flight recovered 51 sets of remains from a Tarawa battlefield cemetery and an additional 32 remains in 2019. In total, more than 150 servicemen have been identified and returned from Tarawa since 2020—including the remains of missing-in-action Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman Jr.
The Battle of Tarawa was part of the larger U.S. invasion of the Gilbert Islands. Codenamed Operation Galvanic, the primary assault was directed at Tarawa Atoll’s island of Betio. More than 1,000 U.S. servicemen were killed in the 76-hour battle, among the fiercest of the Pacific war. After the fighting, Marines and sailors were expediently buried in some 40 wartime cemeteries.
The various objects unearthed in the course of History Flight’s efforts all were recovered on Betio Island by professional archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, geophysicists, and explosive ordnance specialists working for the organization. The History Flight team is led by Chief Operations Officer Sergeant Major Justin LeHew, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired). A Navy Cross recipient from the 2003 Battle of An Nasiriyah, LeHew’s passion for repatriating the lost Marines of World War II provides testament to the Semper Fi spirit.
Nearly every artifact received by the National Museum of the Marine Corps from History Flight has been professionally tagged and marked with specific recovery location and information. The artifacts range from helmets, canteens, and bayonets of individual Marines and Japanese soldiers to personal items, such as pocket change and medical items, found among the burial rows where the casualties were recovered.
Highlights include original wooden grave markers, with the names of Marines once buried beneath them still visible, and a black enamel canteen that still retained the original water carried by its Marine in 1943.
For more information on the National Museum of the Marine Corps, visit usmcmuseum.com. To find out more about the ongoing efforts of History Flight, go to historyflight.com.