Soldiers who fought in World War II came from all walks of life. And because of their varying backgrounds, they brought their own unique skills and expertise to the battlefield. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was the son of the owner of a coal company. Bonnyman Jr., himself, later owned his own copper mining business. This experience was vital during his heroic actions during the war.
Alexander Bonnyman Jr.’s Upbringing
Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father was the President of a Tennesee coal company. Bonneyman was a terrific athlete on the football team at Princeton University. He dropped out of school during his Sophomore year, though.
After leaving school, Bonnyman Jr. signed up for the Army Air Corps and entered flight training. He was later dropped from the program. His instructors noted that while he showed tremendous character, he did not have the aptitude to become a pilot. He later worked in the coal industry before starting a copper mining business.
Bonnyman Jr. Enters the Service
Copper was an essential resource for the military during World War II. As a result, Bonnyman Jr., who had a wife and two young children, was exempt from the war as he was providing critical strategic material. The businessman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and received his training in San Diego, California, despite the exemption.
Following basic training, Bonnyman Jr. saw his first combat during the Battle of Guadalcanal throughout 1942. He acquitted himself well there and was promoted to Second Lieutenant in February of 1943.
He was known among his superiors as an excellent leader who was well-liked by those under his command.
The Battle of Tarawa
During 1943’s Battle of Tarawa, Bonnyman and his troops were tasked with handling beachhead logistics. When they came under heavy gunfire, the Second Lieutenant led his men to the beach, using flamethrowers to destroy Japanese installations. The next day, Bonnyman Jr. led a team of 21 men to a Japanese bombproof shelter entrance. The team was able to kill a number of the shelter’s defenders.
Inside the shelter were 120 Japanese troops who did battle with the 21 Marines. As the Marines held their position, they received air support. Bonnyman Jr. continued the charge and was able to flush all of the enemies out of the structure. However, as he continued, the Marine was cut down by the Japanese. Thanks to his bravery, the Allies were able to take Betio Island. 13 of the 21 Marines under Bonnyman Jr.’s command survived the operation.
Alexander Bonnyman Jr.’s Medal of Honor
Bonnyman Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Then-President Harry Truman’s citation read in part:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20–22 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, 1st Lt. Bonnyman 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 demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day.”
The letter continued, “By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
Bonnyman Jr.’s Legacy
For many years, Bonnyman Jr’s body and the bodies of 35 other Marines killed in Tarawa were listed as non-recovered. In 2015, the bodies were found in a battlefield cemetery. Bonnyman Jr’s body was repatriated to the states and his remains are now kept in a Knoxville cemetery.
A Naval ship, the USNS 1st LT Alex Bonnyman (T-AK-3003), was named for the Marine. The ship was active from 1985 through 2009. Also named for Bonnyman is a bowling alley above Camp Lejuene and the Pellissippi Parkway Bridge which is located above the Tennessee River on the Knox/Blount County Line.