The Lost Graves of Tarawa
Tom Vosmer doesn’t recall exactly when he learned his cousin had been killed during the Battle of Tarawa. He might have been 6 or 7. The loss was nonetheless devastating. “Even at that age, I remember being deeply affected by the news,” he says. “The name ‘Tarawa’ was imprinted in my mind very powerfully.”
For decades, however, Tom didn’t realize the breadth of the tragedy his family had endured following the bloody assault on a key Japanese stronghold in the South Pacific in November 1943. Pfc. Ronald Vosmer and hundreds of other Marines who were killed in just three days of battle were hastily buried and then lost. By early 1949, a military review board declared many of the remains, including Vosmer’s, unrecoverable. Scores of families were deprived of the certainty of knowing what happened to their loved ones and the solace of bringing them home for burial.
“I can’t imagine how his parents must have felt,” Tom says.
Seven decades later, the family finally has closure. In October, Vosmer finally came home to rest in the Denver cemetery where his parents and sister are buried – thanks largely to the efforts of History Flight, a nonprofit group that has spent more than a dozen years and tens of thousands of hours finding the lost Marines of Tarawa. “Such a pity this could not have happened while his parents were still alive,” says Tom, who traveled from his home in Australia to attend the funeral in Colorado. “But at least it has happened, which gives us some comfort.”
OPERATION GALVANIC Providing comfort to the families of the missing Tarawa Marines has been an excruciating challenge, emblematic of the price the tiny atoll exacted as the United States attempted to push back the Japanese.
The Battle of Tarawa was essentially the battle of Betio, a two-mile ribbon of sand and coral in the Gilbert Islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Protected by a network of bunkers, machine-gun nests, anti-aircraft batteries and other armaments, Tarawa was the most heavily fortified atoll the United States invaded in the Pacific. A Japanese admiral reportedly claimed the United States couldn’t take it with a million men.
The U.S. invasion, known as Operation Galvanic, was crucial to securing a foothold in the central Pacific from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline islands. It was a near-calamity from the start. Most of the enemy fortifications survived intense pre-invasion shelling from U.S. warships. Aerial bombing runs were late or didn’t materialize, says Dean Ladd, then a 23-year-old first lieutenant and platoon leader. Lower-than-anticipated tides stranded U.S. landing craft offshore, making them easy targets for the Japanese.
On the first day of the invasion, Ladd’s battalion circled the island in Higgins boats for 21 hours waiting for orders to land – orders that never came because of communication failures. When the battalion commander finally decided to go for it on the second morning, their fleet of landing craft ran aground on a reef 600 yards from shore, forcing the Marines to wade to the aptly named Red Beach 2 in the face of withering enemy gunfire.
“We got slaughtered,” says Ladd, who was shot in the stomach as he led his platoon to shore. A fellow Marine dragged him back to a landing craft that took Ladd and other wounded Marines back to USS Sheridan. An abdominal specialist on board saved Ladd’s life.
“Can you imagine the odds of having an abdominal specialist?” he says. “He had to patch up my bladder and take out part of my large intestine. I was called his wonder patient.”
Ladd recovered and went on to see action on Saipan and Tinian. Now 96 and living in Spokane, Wash., he has written three books, including “Faithful Warriors,” a vivid memoir of his World War II combat tour that included all of the 2nd Marine Division’s major campaigns.
AFTERMATH U.S. losses at Tarawa were staggering. Vosmer and more than 1,100 other Americans were killed “during three days of the most concentrated combat of the war,” Ladd says. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in six months of fighting on Guadalcanal, according to the History Channel.
Another 2,500 U.S. troops were wounded, Ladd adds. All but 17 of approximately 4,500 Japanese troops died in the fighting or killed themselves.
The public outcry over the casualty count was intense. “FDR decided to let the general public know what war was really like,” he says. “Boy, did it hit the fan.”
While Ladd was recovering from the damage the machine-gun round had done to his gut, the Marines buried their dead in shallow graves. Construction crews quickly expanded the airfield and built other infrastructure needed for Betio to serve the U.S. advance. And when the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company returned in 1946 and 1947, there was confusion as to where the American dead were actually buried.
In the end, the 604th found roughly half of the U.S. servicemembers who died on Tarawa. Of those, 471 were identified and buried in U.S. cemeteries, says Kurt Hiete, past commander of American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades, Calif., who founded the Never Forget Our Veterans Foundation after visiting Tarawa in 2010.
Another 104 were buried as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, aka the Punchbowl, in Hawaii. As many as 500 remained on the rolls of Tarawa’s missing.
Back home, families struggled to make sense of their losses and the lack of information about what happened to their loved ones. Vosmer’s family built a wall of silence around their grief. They were told he was missing in action and chances of finding him were slim, says Ron Harrison, Vosmer’s nephew and namesake. “My mother was a very emotional person. She never talked about it because it was pretty hard on her.”
That void remained until 2013, when Ron read a story in the San Jose Mercury News about a group called History Flight that was investing thousands of dollars and research hours on technology to locate American MIAs all over the world, including the lost Marines of Tarawa. He contacted Clay Bonnyman Evans, whose grandfather, Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, also died on Tarawa. Two years later, History Flight located the remains of 35 Marines and turned them over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the branch of the Pentagon charged with recovering the more than 80,000 U.S. servicemembers who have gone missing in action since World War II.
Harrison and his sister, LuLane, were asked to submit DNA samples. And in March 2016, they learned that LuLane’s DNA was a match for the remains found next to Evans’ grandfather. “It was exciting to think that it had meant something – that it had come full circle,” says LuLane, who like her brother lives in California. Their uncle was coming home. “History Flight made it all happen,” she adds.
HONOR GUARD Meanwhile, in Healdsburg, Calif., the family of another lost Tarawa Marine, Pfc. John Saini, contacted American Legion Post 111 finance officer Bob Taylor about using its hall for a small family funeral reception. Taylor reserved a larger building instead – the nearby Villa Chanticleer – and tried to convince Saini’s niece that it was the minimum amount of space needed to accommodate everyone who would turn out for the memorial service.
“Family members don’t always realize how big a deal it is to veterans to have somebody brought home after 70 years,” Taylor says. “They don’t think it means anything to anybody outside of the family.”
Post 111 contacted the local newspaper, and by the day of the service even San Francisco TV stations were covering the story. American Legion Riders escorted Saini’s casket 90 miles from the San Francisco airport to Healdsburg. Along the route, fire departments had their ladder trucks stationed on overpasses with U.S. flags hoisted from the top rung and firefighters saluting the passing motorcade. For Taylor, Healdsburg once again felt like the small town that adopted a U.S. battalion during the Korean War.
Both the funeral and reception were packed. Hundreds of people attended. “It’s about the Legion showing up and honoring a veteran,” Taylor says. “It’s who we are.”
Liz McDowell, Saini’s niece, was stunned.
“The American Legion got to work and sure enough, everything fell into place,” McDowell says. “They did so much more than we ever hoped for. I can’t put it into words how grateful we are.”
Hiete, who attended, was also impressed. And he knew that Post 111’s effort was a model for what other Legion posts should do to welcome the lost Marines of Tarawa home. “There’s no better way for the local community to know about The American Legion than to have it participate in these funerals,” he says.
Hiete put Vosmer’s family in touch with the Colorado American Legion. Service officer Robert Rhodes went to work doing everything from dispatching Legion Riders to escort Vosmer’s casket to organizing a luncheon and funeral reception and inviting Colorado’s congressional delegation to speak. Vosmer’s family took note.
“It was just something very special,” Ron Harrison says. “Nobody personally knew him. But they took the time to come and honor my uncle. It made me proud of the military services.”
The memorial was attended by Jill Henderson, the niece of still-missing Tarawa Marine John Taylor Burke. She found hope in the return of Vosmer’s remains. “I want that happy ending for my family,” Henderson says, “while my mother and (Burke’s nephew Tom McNeely) are still alive as both are suffering from melanoma cancer.”
Amite Post 76 in Liberty, Miss., went all out for the family of James S. Smith, a local boy who died on Tarawa and was returned home in October thanks to History Flight. Department of Mississippi Commander Murry “CQ” Toney, who is a member of Post 76, put out the word and the result was a tribute the family will never forget.
“The American Legion was the greatest thing,” says Carey Smith, nephew of the fallen Marine. “I can’t tell you how much they went out of their way to help us.”
Families in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Kentucky are repeating those sentiments, as other American Legion posts step up to honor the lost Marines of Tarawa who are finally coming home.
For Vosmer’s family, this memorial service not only brought closure but deep gratitude for the military and History Flight, and a new sense of duty to his missing comrades.
“I really lost it when they played taps,” Ron says. “I felt very honored. And I made a promise to myself: if they identify any of the other Marines, I’m going to make it to the funerals of the people who died with my uncle.”
If you have a family member that is MIA, please visit the DPAA website and fill out the contact form
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.