A nonprofit organization that searches for the remains of U.S. servicemen lost in past conflicts has found what officials believe are the graves of more than 30 Marines and sailors killed in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The remains are believed to belong to Marines and sailors from the 6th Marine Regiment killed during the last night of the three-day Battle of Tarawa.Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press, 26 June 2019.
On the fourth day of March, 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company arrived at the island of Betio. After a ten-day voyage from Hawaii aboard the USAT Lawrence Phillips – quartered on hatch covers, eating in shifts, limited fresh water and enduring rough seas – they were glad to be ashore. There were movies, mail, and a mess hall, courtesy of the Army troops who garrisoned the island, plus the guarantee of regular pay and a round of promotions, too. The Tarawa mission was off to a pleasant start.
As his men unloaded the ship and set up their huts, Lieutenant Ira Eisensmith took a stroll around the small island to scope out the scene of operations. He, too, was pleasantly surprised. “The first thing was to see where the Marine Graves (Cemeteries) were located and what condition they were in,” he noted. “It was found that there were approximately 43 graves (cemeteries) containing from one body to up to 400 in the Tarawa Atoll.” The “graves” were beautifully laid out, clearly marked, and easy to access – the base had seemingly grown up around the little crosses, which numbered more than a thousand. Every grave was to be exhumed, and the remains consolidated into a new burial plot called “Lone Palm Cemetery.” Lt. Eisensmith knew the effort required to move so many bodies, but he believed there would be little challenge to locating and identifying the men he was after. All was ready within a few days.
Starting on Monday, March 18, the diggers were divided into four groups. One was assigned to operations in Lone Palm; another set out to track down the many isolated graves that still dotted the island. The remaining groups set to exhuming the two largest cemeteries on Betio – referred to as Grave #26 (believed to contain 119 bodies) and Grave #33 (more than 400 bodies). That first day, fifteen remains were interred in Lone Palm, mostly from isolated sites and Grave 26.
The Grave 33 team, however, was perplexed. Their mission plan was simple: start at the first grave in the first plot and simply work through, row by row. However, as Lt. Eisensmith wryly noted, “at this point, our difficulties began. After two days of excavating no bodies had been recovered. This created much concern.” It was the first real indication of what “memorial cemetery” actually meant – there were no bodies buried beneath the markers. The 604th began looking at their piles of paperwork and documentation with some trepidation.
What the Graves Registration team needed, more than anything else, was an eyewitness who could point them in the right direction. Fortuitously, they had two of them on Betio. Fathers Francis W. Kelly and William R. O’Neill were veterans of the bloody fighting; as chaplains attached to regiments of the Second Marine Division, they had helped to oversee the burial of the dead. The two clergymen arrived by airplane on 12 March for the express purpose of helping to locate graves. After two days of fruitless effort, Father O’Neill was summoned to the site of Cemetery 33. Although he had “buried Marine dead on this spot shortly after the invasion,” the island had changed so much that even Father O’Neill was at a loss. He recalled burying the men in three rows, each of which was aligned with a tree or stump – but these landmarks were long since gone, as were the original markers he had placed over each grave. O’Neill finally suggested that the men start searching for traces of the original rows.
“By a series of prospect excavations and narrow trenches,” records Eisensmith, “the middle row [designated as Row B] was found first. Later, the other two rows were found.” Once located, the remains were quickly moved; PFC Herbert L. Bitzer, originally buried in Row B, was the first to be reinterred in Lone Palm Cemetery on the afternoon of 20 March. This was despite the fact that “quite a few of the bodies had grenades buried with them.” The corroded ordnance was carefully disposed of at sea – one grenade actually detonated while being removed.
According to burial records, “Row B” – the longest in Grave 33 – contained 44 individuals. “Row C,” with 43 burials, was probably found next; Private Robert J. Baribeau, originally of this row, was reinterred in Lone Palm on 29 March. With only 33 reported burials, “Row A” was quite a bit shorter, and evidently took longer to locate. The 604th’s operations journal for 27 March 1946 reports that “the group in Grave #33 are having trouble locating the third row of bodies that is supposed to be there.” Another day or two of searching uncovered “Row A.”
While these bodies were being moved, another series of excavations took place in search of additional remains. Finally, on the morning of 2 April 1946, the last body was removed from the third row. “There was meant to have been 400 bodies buried in Grave #33,” comments the journal, “but there seems to have been a mistake in this. The group of men working there have found only 129, and further excavating has found no more.” As a final safeguard, “the earth in the trenches where the bodies were buried… was sifted this afternoon as a further search for personal effects.” Lieutenant Eisensmith decided that further searching was “fruitless” and Grave #33 was officially “closed” that day.
They never found the fourth row.
Casualty and graves registration records from the 2nd Marine Division clearly reported the existence of a “Grave [Row] D” in the East Division Cemetery, containing at least 33 individuals – 31 of whom were reported by name. Most were members of the 6th Marines who fell in action on 22 November 1943. Private Wayland Stevens, who fought with the 6th on Betio and survived, offered an account of burying the dead from Company D:
Several of the boys in the platoon went up and picked up the boys that were killed and buried them in the same location, leaving one dog tag on the body and the other on the marker that we placed on the grave.
We dug the graves just about four feet deep and before burying any of the boys, we searched them for their personal effects and also to make sure they had identification tags.
At the time we buried them, we found ourselves some trash wood that we inserted into the ground and then finding some old mess gear we scratched in the names of the dead boys on the mess gear and hung this equipment over the board that signified the grave of the Marine dead. One of the identification tags we left on the body and the other dog tag we just loosely hung the chain over the top of the board and just placed the mess gear bearing the scratched identity of the deceased on that.
The burial site of the D/1/6 gunners, as remembered by Pvt. Stevens. One of the men he found, PFC Clarence E. Drumheiser, was exhumed from “Row B” in 1946 and identified last year.
First Sergeant Lewis Michelony (D/1/6) also described the efforts to find and bury the dead from his battalion.
The worst part of the whole battle is the aftermath, when you have to bury your dead; and by the third day, they were stinking! Well, we stayed [in our positions] for two or three days, and we had to send our people out to bury them.
I told each platoon they would have to send so many men to pick up Japanese and Marines. Where we were, there was no graveyard. There was a big tank trap, so we laid Japanese down on one side of the tank trap, and on the other side we laid Marines down.
The smell was sickening, just terrible! There were four men with a poncho, and they would pick up a dead man (or a part of a man) and they would lay him down. Well, when we got to [1Lt. Hugh D.] Fricks [D/1/6], I took my mess gear out, and I carved his name and officer number and rank on it, and I put “KIA, 23 November 1943” on it…. We didn’t have crosses then…
When we identified and buried a man, we took a dog tag off him, put one on his toe, and we didn’t know what to do with the other dog tag. So finally we found out that we had to give them to the chaplain [Father O’Neill]. I didn’t know at the time that there was a graves registration service, but we learned in other battles how this worked…. Nobody told me, from any other war or battle, what you did with your casualties, you know. I never even gave it a thought; but then when it happened, all these things just sort of came to you.Lewis J. Michelony, Jr., interviewed by John Daniels, 2 May 1993.
Bulldozers were also active on the battlefield, scooping out long trenches where bodies would be laid almost shoulder to shoulder. There was no time to dig individual graves or prepare coffins; most Americans killed on Tarawa were simply covered by ponchos. (Japanese dead, by contrast, were frequently thrown into convenient shell holes and covered as quickly as possible.)
This excavation, whether repurposed tank trap or purpose-dug trench, was designated “Row D,” despite its relative distance from the rest of East Division/Cemetery 33. There is no indication that any remains were ever moved from this location and reburied closer to Rows A–C. Why this site is considered part of East Division/Cemetery 33 at all is something of a mystery – especially considering that other units named cemeteries after themselves (for example, “D/2/18 Cemetery” a.k.a. Cemetery 20, or “8th Marines Cemetery” a.k.a. Cemetery 27). Of the 57 fatal casualties suffered by the First Battalion, 6th Marines, at least thirty were reportedly buried in “Row D.”
|Cemetery (Marine Designation)||Navy Number||Reported 6th Marine Burials|
|Beach Red 1 Cemetery||13||3 (3 accounted for)|
|Central Division Cemetery||26||1 (1 accounted for)|
|8th Marines Cemetery #2||27||1 (1 accounted for)|
|6th Marines Cemetery #1||32||1 (1 accounted for)|
|East Division Cemetery||33||Row B: 2 (2 accounted for)|
Row D: 30 (0 accounted for)
|Isolated Burial||39||1 (1 accounted for)|
|2nd Marines Cemetery #1||Cemetery C||2 (0 accounted for)|
“KH 283072, D-2 Map, 14Oct43”
|n/a||8 (0 accounted for)|
|Location Not Known / Missing||n/a||5 (1 accounted for)|
Note: One Marine appears twice on the list above. PFC Charles D. Miller is reported buried in “Row D,” and also at the map coordinates. This may indicate that the other men buried at the same coordinates are in the vicinity of “Row D.”
Row “D” was not just overlooked, or undiscovered, by the 604th: it was seemingly never acknowledged at all. This is not to say that they were ignorant of its existence. A considerable amount of paperwork referring to “Row D” existed at the time; the 604th was supplied with a list of casualties, dental records, and other printed information. Several reports prepared by the 2nd Marine Division’s Graves Registration Section – including cemetery rosters and a full list of casualties with dispositions – are filed along with the 604th unit journal in the National Archives.
So, why might Eisensmith’s men have overlooked the burial site of thirty or so Marines? Records from the Graves Registration outfit very clearly and distinctly state their expectation that Grave 33 had three rows. They searched for three, they found three, and although they dug holes and trenches all around the area, they found nothing else. They evidently believed in good faith that they had found every body that they could.
Before castigating Lt. Eisensmith, however, one should imagine the frustration of digging in a clearly defined and marked burial ground for two full days – under dozens of crosses – and finding nothing there. When remains were found, they were not always in the same order – or even the same grave – as the records said. It is easy to see how quickly the 604th might have come to mistrust the information at their disposal. They did not give up easily; recall the additional “cross trenches and prospect excavations” carried out in an effort to find more of the 400 men theoretically buried in the vicinity. (The 604th presumably arrived at this number by counting memorial crosses; the four rows of the cemetery contained a reported 153 men.) Very likely, if the diggers searched for a fourth row, they probably only dug a few yards from the three rows already found – assuming that the fourth row would be nearby, when in fact it may have been anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred yards away. Memorial cemeteries on Betio were designated either by rows of graves or huge cross markers; evidently there was never one erected above “Row D,” and the area appeared as an unremarkable expanse of sand and brush.
Finally, there was the reliance on the memory of eyewitnesses. When Father O’Neill prayed for the men in the Eastern Division Cemetery in November 1943, he likely looked out over a small field of 120 crosses – in three distinct rows. In Tarawa’s Gravediggers, William L. Niven writes that “Father O’Neill left the island with his regiment [the 6th Marines] only hours after the fighting ended.” (The regiment remained in the area of operations through the end of the month.) Niven goes on to state that, because this cemetery was designated as the “main” one on the island, it was expanded after O’Neill’s departure. Ergo, the chaplain was simply unaware of the existence of Row D; or perhaps he did not associate the former tank trap with what he recalled as the “East Division Cemetery.” Had he realized, Father O’Neill would never have allowed Eisensmith to close the cemetery without looking for the missing men – especially since they were from his former regiment.
Even so, the 604th may have come tantalizingly close. The remains of PFC Manuel Nunes, Jr. – supposed to be the 33rd and final body in “Row D” – was exhumed from the Cemetery 33 area and identified by 604th technicians using dental charts. He was buried in Lone Palm Cemetery Plot 1, Row 2, Grave 12 on 21 March 1946. How Nunes, a member of M/3/8th Marines killed in action on 21 November, came to be buried in this row is not known; perhaps he was moved from an isolated grave. Or – just as likely – the “Row D” annotation was a clerical error and Nunes was actually disinterred from elsewhere in Cemetery 33. (Other reburials in Lone Palm on 21 March indicate that the 604th was working on “Row B” at the time.)
On 20 May 1946, the 604th put the finishing touches on the walkways of Lone Palm Cemetery, and adjourned to their barracks for a beer party. Their work on Betio was considered complete. The last unknown skulls had been checked against the dental charts, the open pits of the graves had been leveled over, and the only chore left was to pack their belongings and wait for orders to board the transport. They departed two days later, bound for home via Kwajalein and Honolulu.
Lone Palm would prove to be the shortest-lived cemetery in Betio’s history. In December, another team from the 604th arrived to dismantle the graves and package the remains for transit to the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu. There, technicians and anthropologists would confirm the work done by the 604th, and attempt to identify nearly three hundred unknowns. Only three proved to be members of the 6th Marines; none of the “Row D” casualties were among them. Their cases were closed in 1949, and the entire row – save PFC Nunes – declared permanently non-recoverable.
On 26 June 2019, the Associated Press reported the discovery of Row D.
Non-profit organization History Flight is credited with the discovery.
These are the Marines of Row D,
Graves 1 through 33.
Note that this list is based on burial records from the 1940s which are, of course, occasionally inaccurate. It should not be considered confirmation that an individual has been accounted for.
The individuals in Graves 31 and 32 were unidentified at the time of burial.
 1Lt. Ira Eisensmith, “Memorandum to Chief, Memorial Branch, Quartermaster Section, Army Forces, Middle Pacific, 3 July 1946.” Perhaps in order to avoid confusion, the 604th used the term “Grave” instead of “cemetery” when referring to these original burial sites; by contrast, reburials took place in “Lone Palm Cemetery.”
 The 604th primarily used the Navy numbering system to refer to burial sites; #26 was known to Marines as “Central Division Cemetery,” “Beach Red 2 Cemetery,” or “Cemetery 1” while #33 was “East Division Cemetery.”
 Eisensmith Memorandum.
 Kelly, who later received the Legion of Merit, served with the 2nd Marines during the Tarawa campaign; O’Neill was with the 6th Marines. A third chaplain, W. Wyeth Willard, accompanied the 8th Marines into battle and kept a detailed list of all the burials he conducted. He did not return to the island with the Graves Registration team, however.
 Eisensmith Memorandum.
 According to casualty reports, Bitzer was originally buried in Row B, Grave 8. The 604th could not identify him in 1946; he became “X-47” and was reinterred in Plot 2, Row 2, Location 15 of Lone Palm. Bitzer was eventually identified by means of dental chart comparison in February, 1947.
 Headquarters, 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, “Company Diary,” (21 February – 10 June 1946).
 Eisensmith Memorandum. Eisensmith was unsure where this accident took place; no injuries were reported.
 “Company Diary.”
 Eisensmith Memorandum.
 Wayland Stevens, letter dated 20 April 1948, in Robert J. Hatch Individual Deceased Personnel File.
 To be fair, it is not perfectly certain that this report was carried to Betio in 1946 – however, if it was not, then its presence with this journal is incongruous to say the least.
 For example: in Grave #33 Row A, individual 31 was supposed to be Gunnery Sergeant Sidney A. Cook; individual 33 was supposed to be PFC Ben H. Gore. Both of these men were found in Grave #27 – on the other side of the island – by History Flight in 2015.
 William Niven, Tarawa’s Gravediggers, 228.