Hundreds of Dead WWII Marine Heroes in Unmarked Graves at Tarawa

Marines Storm Island
Obie Newcomb Jnr/Getty Images
Washington, D.C.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is leading the efforts to recover the remains of several hundred U.S. Marines lost and left behind by the military more than 70 years ago in a remote island in the Pacific after the bloody World War II Battle of Tarawa.

“Right after the battle, the Marines left and Naval service battalions came in and turn the island into a high-tech American air base and in doing so, they removed the grave markers on all the graves and put up nice looking cemeteries like you see in the states that had no relationship to where the bodies where actually buried,” Mark Noah, the executive director of the Florida-based non-profit charity organization History Flight, said during Breitbart News Saturday’s radio broadcast on Sirius XM Patriot radio channel 125.

“The navy came and built a really nice air base so they could keep the war going towards Japan, towards Tokyo and they took down the markers on the original graves and they put up new, good looking cemeteries that often were not in the same proximity as the actual burial,” he added.

History Flight, an NGO dedicated to bringing Missing in Action (MIA) U.S. servicemen home from their burial sites in remote battlefields of WWII, is leading the recovery efforts on the Pacific island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands where the three-day Battle of Tarawa took place. The battle is considered one of the bloodiest fights against the Japanese in WWII.

In 1946, the U.S. Army went back to the island to try to find the graves of the Marines and sailors killed on the Pacific atoll during the November 1943 battle, but were unable to locate nearly half of them.

According to History Flight, 541 U.S. troops were listed as missing after the battle, the majority of them Marines.

“They didn’t recover at least 300 to 400 people,” Mr. Noah said on Breitbart News Saturday.

Back in 2008, Mr. Noah did not minced words, telling the Tampa Bay Times that the U.S. military had lost the bodies and lied to families about it, comments that he did not dispute when recently speaking with Breitbart News.

“They lost the bodies,” added Noah. “These Marines, each of them was somebody’s son. They all perished and were left behind. And their families were fed the fiction that they were missing in action.”

History Flight was recently successful in locating the bodies of 36 Marines, including the remains of Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonneyman, Jr.

However, Noah told Breitbart News that the bodies of several hundred U.S. service members, most of them Marines, still remain on the remote Pacific island in makeshift, unmarked graves.

Finding the remains will be difficult, added Noah, because, the terrain where they lay is now heavily populated.

Houses and other structures may have been built on top of the unmarked graves, he noted.

The Defense POW [prisoners of war]/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), a component of the Pentagon charged with recovering missing personnel, refused to comment specifically on the remains that still lay on the island.

Breitbart News asked DPAA what it was doing to recover the several hundred bodies and why it has taken so long for the Department of Defense (DoD) to locate the remains.

“We are working currently on plans to repatriate the Marines lost during the Battle of Tarawa that were recently recovered by Mark Noah and History Flight,” Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a DPAA spokeswoman, told Breitbart News, dogging the questions.

“This is a tremendous example of how private-public partnerships can contribute to our accounting efforts both now and in the future,” she added.

Mr. Noah did tell Breitbart News that “the Pentagon does have an active program searching for MIAs all over the world including Tarawa.”

However, the Pentagon’s MIA recovery efforts have been centered on Southeast Asia — Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, he said, adding that it is History Flight who is currently leading the efforts to recover the lost remains from the Battle of Tarawa.

“It has only been in the most recent years that the Department of Defense has even allocated appropriation towards doing this work for WWII,” Noah said on Breitbart News Saturday. 

Despite the U.S. military’s “no one left behind” motto, the Marines are not to blame for not recovering the remains of all their fallen comrades more than 70 years after the Battle of Tarawa, said Noah.

“I don’t think you can blame the Marines for this at all, the issue lies in the fact that the U.S. has a southeast Asia centric MIA philosophy that centers around Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,” he declared.

The Battle of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest of WWII. An estimated 18,000 U.S. Marines were sent to the Japanese held island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

After a bloody, 76-hour battle the Marines were able to take the island despite heavy resistance from 4,500 Japanese defenders. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.

Some estimates place the number of U.S. fatalities as high as 1,600. An estimated 2,000 others wee wounded. Only 17 Japanese defenders reportedly survived.