70 years later, Tennessee military veteran to be laid to rest
Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman
(WBIR) - As East Tennessee prepares for the relocation and burial of a national hero's remains, local volunteers are handcrafting the vehicle that will carry Medal of Honor recipient Sandy Bonnyman to his final resting place.
After more than 70 years in the sandy soil where he died during World War II, Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman's remains were recovered from the Pacific island of Tarawa this summer. He will be buried with honors on Sunday at his family's plot in Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville.
Several military groups will take part in the ceremony. The only civilian group to play an official part in the event is comprised of volunteers who will pull Bonnyman's casket to the grave site on a horse-drawn caisson they personally built.
"We have many heroes. This is one of many who deserve to be honored, who deserve to be remembered," said Steve Cameron with the nonprofit group Burrough's Battery. "If you don't remember these heroes, it's as big a tragedy as the loss of them."
Cameron owns Trail Rock Ordnance in Blaine and makes a living building historically accurate carriages, caissons, and guns from the Civil War era. Now he hammers away at a brand new caisson specifically for Bonnyman's burial.
"All the equipment is just exactly like what it would have looked like in the field," said Cameron. "We have a team of 12 horses for the ceremonies and reenactments. We've been fortunate to take part in some incredible events like the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. To now be involved in something like this is such an incredible honor to pay respect to a genuine hero who grew up in Knoxville."
Bonnyman was killed during the U.S. invasion of Tarawa in World War II. The American advance ran into heavily fortified Japanese bunkers that trapped Marines in a blender of gunfire. With the Marines stalled and being slaughtered, Bonnyman took charge and mounted an assault with a few other men using demolitions and flamethrowers. Bonnyman's attack sent more than 100 Japanese troops scrambling from the bunker where they were then cut down by U.S. gunfire.
The Americans broke through the Japanese defense, but Bonnyman was killed in the process. Approximately 1,000 U.S. Marines and 4,000 Japanese soldiers died on Tarawa. Bonnyman's body was buried on the island, but the story of his sacrifice returned to the United States. He was posthumously award the Medal of Honor. The bridge crossing the Tennessee River on the Pellissippi Parkway is named in his honor.
Now that Bonnyman's body has been recovered, he finally returns home with honor.
"Lieutenant Bonnyman gave his life," said Charles Hall, a volunteer with Burrough's Battery who spent Monday working with the rescued racehorses that will pull the caisson. "Just to be able to be a small part of this is an honor for us."
Cameron estimates the cost of the vehicle he is building will total around $15,000. That money will come mostly from his own pocket and donations from other members of Burrough's Battery. Cameron said it's a small price to pay homage to a hometown hero.
"Sandy Bonnyman is a real-life hero. What he did saved hundreds of people's lives. If you have no idea what spectacular people came before you, you have no idea where you're going," said Cameron.