Service & Sacrifice: East Tennessee Medal of Honor

John Becker     Updated: 5/13/2011 7:11:17 AM    Posted: 5/12/2011 8:33:24 PM

Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman is one of fourteen war veterans from East Tennessee honored with the nation's highest military decoration. The Medal of Honor has been presented to a select few warriors since the Civil War. Of the millions who have fought in the United States Armed Forces fewer than 3,500 have received the Medal of Honor.

In East Tennessee the name Alvin C. York is most often connected with the prestigious medal. Sergeant York received the Medal of Honor decoration for his heroic actions in World War I. But throughout the month of May we are reporting on other combat veterans who fall in that select company with Sgt. York.

Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman earned his honor in fierce fighting on the sands of the Pacific island of Tarawa in World War II. Thousands of Marines fought gallantly in the battle over that strategic piece of land. Close to one thousand American troops died in three days of fighting. But it was Lt. Bonnyman's leadership on that island, throughout a hail of enemy fire, that distinguished him from his fellow Marines.

"He was older, 33," said Cynthia Tinker with the University of Tennessee Center For the Study of War and Society. Ms. Tinker helped research all fourteen Medal of Honor recipients featured on Knoxville's East Tennessee Veterans Memorial in World's Fair Park.

"He had a deferment because he ran a copper mine in New Mexico, he didn't have to go (to war)," said Tinker.

Lt. Bonnyman's Medal of Honor citation reads in part, "By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country."

In an interview with Lt. Bonnyman's grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans reflected on a story one Marine shared with him about his grandfather's subtle leadership style and the respect he showed to his fellow warriors.

"What he remembered is, Sandy Bonnyman shared his whiskey with his men," said Mr. Evans.