The Lost Graves of Tarawa


After 76 hours of pitched combat, the battle of Tarawa was over. Betio looked like a lunar landscape and was littered with 6,000 corpses decomposing in the equatorial sun. The 285-acre island was also littered with the rotting food and excreta of 15,000 men. "Highly unsanitary conditions were generally prevalent."12 Tarawa veteran Ed Weber said "the flies were so thick they covered your food and you couldn't eat.”13 There was a strong sense of urgency to clean up the island for epidemiological reasons. Bulldozers were used to plough Japanese dead into shell craters and tank traps, and their dead in the block houses were covered with lime and the structures sealed shut.14

Bulldozers were also used to create burial trenches for the large number of American dead. There were a minimum of 43 temporary cemeteries scattered all over the island ranging from one to over 150 bodies in the separate burial grounds.15 This report uses the word minimum as there is substantial credible evidence that numerous other grave areas on the island were lost and never found after the war until our survey found them in 2008. On the 26th of November 1943 an intelligence report was prepared by the 2nd Marine Division and in the report was a map showing the creation of dumps and installations on the island and the number and location of American graves as of that date. The number of graves on the island as of that date was 324. Even though it is an unfinished, hand-drawn map, it remains the most accurate of the Tarawa burial maps because it was drawn by the unit that actually did the burials. (See Image 11)

Individual units collected their own dead and buried them in unit cemeteries as well as in larger cemeteries shared by all units. By the 4th of December "622 Marines had been buried on Helen (code name for Betio), 75% of which had been identified.”16 The 2nd and 8th regiments of the 2nd Marine Division had departed on the 24th of November and the rest of the division departed for Hawaii at this time.

In his report to the CG 2nd Marine Division and CINCPAC the island commander of Betio after the battle, Captain Gould, wrote "several more known members of the 2nd Marine Division were buried by personnel of Navy ACORN (Aviation, Construction, Ordinance, Repair, Navy) 14 and the Marine garrison after the assault troops were withdrawn... a substantial number of unknown bodies were likewise buried by personnel of US Navy ACORN 14.”17 While Captain Gould does not quantify the term "substantial" it is self explanatory: it means a large number. Furthermore, several Tarawa veterans shared their experiences with this study of witnessing or creating the mass burials of American dead on Tarawa (their accounts will be presented later in this report) and they recount large bulldozer-dug trench burials with several hundred Marines in them who are not reflected in any of the archival research material or the official record. It is highly likely that the total American burials on Betio well exceeded 800, yet after the war, only 436 casualties that were buried on Betio were recovered. What happened to the rest of the Marines buried on Betio?

Next: The Original Burials


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