TARAWA, Republic of Kiribati - A U.S. Marine Corps combat engineer humanitarian assistance survey team (HAST), in conjunction with Pacific Partnership 2013, conducted a memorial ceremony on Betio Island, part of Tarawa Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati, July 19, to honor one of their own.
While other members of Pacific Partnership conducted health fairs, community service and engineering events, a small group of seven Marines and one Sailor stood in the entrance to a World War II Japanese bunker just off of what was strategically known as Red Beach Three. There, HAST Officer in Charge, U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Mike Wisotzkey, Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion called his team to attention while he read a citation for the highest honor bestowed upon U.S. service members, the Medal of Honor.
"The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor posthumously to 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Jr ... 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 ..."
After the recitation, while the Marines quietly explored the bunker now located innocuously behind a police station, Wisotzkey explained more about his team and why they were on Tarawa Atoll.
"This is a Marine Forces Pacific initiative. This team's primary mission is to conduct humanitarian assistance surveys on various outlying islands and visit, and rehabilitate, the different war memorials," Wisotzkey said.
"But when we found out we were visiting Tarawa, we knew we wanted to do something special," Wisotzkey said. "Lieutenant Bonnyman was one of us, he was a combat engineer."
HAST member, U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Ricardo Alonsolopez described the visit as being, "Once in a lifetime.
"The Marines got stuck on a coral reef and had to wade ashore under heavy fire from the Japanese," Alonsolopez said. "There were many casualties. So for these Marines, and for me as a hospital corpsman, these sites are part of our heritage. This is all very meaningful."
For another Marine, Pvt. Taylor Pittman, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, standing in the bunker and seeing first hand the unexploded ordnance scattered on the ground touched more than his sense of patriotism, it touched his sense of family.
"My great uncle fought here, on Tarawa." Pittman said. "I never got to meet him; he died years later fighting in Korea. But I can't help but wonder, 'Did he fight here, at this exact bunker. Was he standing where I am standing?'"
Looking around at the bunker and the rubble scattered on the ground Pittman said, seemingly to himself, "This is so unreal."
Conducted annually since 2006, Pacific Partnership is the largest disaster response-preparedness mission in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Working at the invitation of each host nation, Pacific Partnership is joined by partner nations that include Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Japan, Malaysia Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand.