(WBIR) East Tennessee has been home to several recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military valor. However, Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman is the only recipient whose heroism and final moments alive can still be seen in stunning video that was recorded during a deadly battle.
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A team of 20 combat journalists and photographers filmed the ferocious invasion of the Pacific island of Tarawa that killed Bonnyman and roughly 1,000 other American troops. The rare footage was used to create a 19-minute film called With the Marines at Tarawa. The short film won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1944.
The film also includes the last images of 33-year-old Sandy Bonnyman alive in combat. Bonnyman was originally awarded the Navy Cross, but was later deemed worthy of receiving the nation's highest military honor.
Because the film was created by the government, the documentary is part of the U.S. National Archives and is uploaded to the organization's YouTube account. The film can be seen in its entirety online for free.
The documentary is considered propaganda because it was produced by the military and is narrated from the perspective of the United States. It also includes patriotic music to start and end the film. However, the vast majority of footage has a different feel than much of the World War II video reels approved by the government during the era. Much of the film features nothing more than battle footage, sounds of combat, and play-by-play narration.
Between 8 to 10 minutes into the film, video shows various shots from the portion of battle when Bonnyman's team crawled ahead with flamethrowers and explosives to send more than 100 Japanese troops scrambling from a bombproof position. Bonnyman can be seen on top of a hill holding a position where he was killed when a group of Japanese troops counter-attacked. The film does not specifically identify Bonnyman. As his daughter noted in subsequent interviews, "It's just a helmet and a tall man on top of a hill."
Bonnyman's assault and sacrifice was deemed by some historians to have single-handedly ended a stalemate that had pinned the Marines in harm's way. His actions allowed the U.S. to finally break through a strong Japanese defense.
Many top military advisers wanted the film censored due to its graphic footage that includes Marines with battle wounds, bodies of U.S. troops floating in the surf, and Japanese casualties.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to release the film without additional censorship. Trusted servicemen who were present at Tarawa convinced the president that glossing over the terrible reality the Marines faced would be a disservice to those who died.
Today, With the Marines at Tarawa serves as a valuable historical document that recounts the days before, during, and after a bloody invasion that killed 1,000 American and 4,000 Japanese troops.