Graves of 30 World War II service members are found

They were from the U.S. Marines and Navy

By Ryan Prior
CNN image

The remains of 30 US Marines and Navy service members lost since a bloody WWII battle in the South Pacific have been found on remote Tarawa Atoll, an organization that recovers lost US service members said.

Mark Noah, the president of History Flight, told CNN his organization had maintained a presence on the atoll since 2007 -- and had been working to locate and excavate the bodies of Marines in an American cemetery.

History Flight, founded in 2003, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "researching, recovering, and repatriating" American servicemen missing in past conflicts, according to its website.

The organization has had a hand in recovering hundreds of sets of remains from both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

After finding service member remains, History Flight works with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the federal agency tasked with recovering the remains of missing US personnel. Together they identify the fallen, and often coordinate reburial in cooperation with living family members and descendents.

Group seeks to return the dignity of those lost in battle

This isn't the first breakthough the organization has had on the Tarawa Atoll. In 2015, the organization announced the discovery of 120 US personnel, including Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr.

Noah said he grew up overseas as the son of a State Department diplomat, and studied history in college, but was never taught that 78,000 US service members have been missing since World War II.

He said the brothers and sisters of the fallen World War II soldiers are often still alive, and deeply moved to reconnect with lost loved ones.

"You meet them at a funeral and it's just as meaningful to them as if the death had been only a year ago."

"It's a remarkable experience of returning the dignity of missing people, by identifying them and reuniting them with their families," he said.

At Tarawa, US forces wanted to take a key airfield

The Battle of Tarawa Atoll, fought from November 20-23, 1943, pitted US Marines against fierce Japanese forces dug in on the atoll's Betio Island, according to the US Navy History and Heritage Command.

Tarawa, which belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, is about 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii. It's located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean roughly equidistant from Hawaii, Japan and Australia.

US forces were mounting an island-by-island campaign to peel back Japanese imperialist ambitions throughout the Pacific. At Tarawa Atoll, the primary American objective was to win the airfield on the thin Betio Island.

They hoped to use that airfield to then stage attacks on other islands closer to the Japanese mainland. On landing, US amphibious forces from the 2nd Marine Division were met with fighting more intense than any they'd encountered before in the Pacific campaign, the Navy says.

Nearly 6,000 lost their lives on both sides, including more than 1,100 Americans, in just 76 hours of fighting at Tarawa. Remains from more than 500 of the US service members were buried in a cemetery on the island.

In 1949, the Army Quartermaster General's Office said the remains were "unrecoverable" and told hundreds of families that they loved ones weren't coming back, History Flight says.

But now, after three quarters of a century buried in obscurity, many of the heroes are in the process of finally coming home.

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