Namesake: Alexander Bonnyman Memorial Bridge

1:33 PM, May 27, 2011   |    comments
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Thousands of people drive over the Tennessee River on the Pellissippi Parkway every day.  The four-lane bridge spans more than 1,700 feet and supports drivers with tons of steel and concrete.  Yet, the man the bridge is named for carries far more weight in our nation's military history.

The structure was built in 1989 and it was designated the "Lt. Alexander 'Sandy' Bonnyman Memorial Bridge" in April 1997.

"We worked to get the bridge named for Sandy Bonnyman because we felt like he should be recognized for his bravery," said Virgil Young, commander of the Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Unit of the Young Marines.  "We also named our Marine Corps League detachment after Bonnyman.  When we formed, we were considering geographic names like a lot of other detachments.  Then someone said we have a Medal of Honor recipient who grew up in Knoxville.  We read about Bonnyman's extraordinary actions and decided to carry his name.  This community helped form the man that Sandy Bonnyman was when he went to World War II."

Sandy Bonnyman's family moved to Knoxville from Georgia when he was two years old.  Bonnyman attended Mrs. J.A. Thackston's school in Knoxville and eventually followed a family tradition of attending college at Princeton.  He played football for a couple of years before dropping out of school in the early 1930s.

By the time the United States entered World War II, Bonnyman was married with three small children and living in New Mexico.  He operated a copper mine that would produce raw materials for the war effort.  All of these factors meant Bonnyman was exempt from military service and did not have to fight overseas.

"He could have sat out the war and made money at his mine.  Instead, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and eventually took part in the assault on Tarawa in the Pacific Ocean," said Young.  "The Marines had their plans for how they were going to hit the beach at Tarawa and then everything just went to hell."

Bonnyman and thousands of other invading Marines found themselves stuck on the beach in a meat-grinder of enemy gunfire.

"The U.S. advance was stalled by some heavily fortified Japanese bunkers.  There was one in particular that the Marines could not get around.  This bombproof bunker had around 150 Japanese troops inside it," said Young.  "When the bullets were flying, Bonnyman proved he was a leader.  Someone has to take charge and say, 'This is what we've got to do.'  He took it on his own to grab a few guys and mount an assault on the bunker.  He led this small team with 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.

"They were a ferocious enemy.  He managed to get on top of the bunker and drove the Japanese inside that bunker out.  He literally saved the lives of hundreds of Marines by taking extraordinary actions," said Young.  "The Japanese counterattacked and he stayed on top of the bunker.  Bonnyman killed another three enemy troops before he was mortally wounded."

Approximately 1,000 U.S. Marines and 4,000 Japanese soldiers died on Tarawa.  Bonnyman's body was buried somewhere on the island, but the story of his sacrifice returned to the United States.

"Sandy Bonnyman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1947," said Young.  "The Bonnyman family has a plot at the top of the hill at Highland Memorial Gardens cemetery in Knoxville and there is a marker there for Sandy.  Every year on the anniversary of his death, November 22, we hold a memorial service there in his honor."

The U.S. Navy also honored Bonnyman's sacrifice in 1985 by naming one of its ships the USNS 1st LT Alex Bonnyman (T-AK-3003).

"I think the word 'hero' is overused these days," said Young.  "But that word is not overused when it comes to what Sandy Bonnyman did during World War II.  He showed extreme individual bravery, but equally impressive is how he did it in terms of team leadership.  He quickly put together a team and had everyone do exactly what was needed to save the lives of his fellow Marines."

Service and Sacrifice

Earlier this month, John Becker interviewed Sandy Bonnyman's grandson in a profile of the Medal of Honor recipient.  They discussed Bonnyman's legacy and the ongoing effort to locate and identify his remains on the Pacific island where he was killed in action.  You can see the full story on the Service and Sacrifice section of our website.

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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'

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