Tarawa Trip February 2011

By Donald K. Allen, DVM

Early in 2010 I was contacted by Mark Noah, president of History Flight in Marathon, FL, about a trip to Tarawa he was planning. Mark had been to Tarawa several times already, searching for the lost graves of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel from the Nov. 20-23, 1943, battle there. Well over 1,100 Marines were killed in the three-day battle to wrest the atoll from the Japanese forces who had heavily fortified the atoll's island of Betio. About 4,500 Japanese marines, sailors, and Korean laborers were also killed and buried on Betio.

Having been to Tarawa twice myself doing research for my book, Tarawa – the Aftermath, I was familiar with conditions on Betio and the difficulties involved in searching for the graves. The island is now heavily overpopulated, with permanent and temporary housing covering nearly all open space. With overpopulation comes pollution and contamination of the beaches and lagoon water; not a pleasant environment for a search.

I had recently heard about a cadaver dog having been trained by someone in Ravenna, OH, and I suggested to Mark that such a dog might be useful for him in the search for Missing In Action (MIA) remains. After World War II an extensive effort was made to comb the Pacific for the bodies of our military personnel who gave their lives in the many battles there. On Betio, most of the graves had been lost during renovation and improvement of the island's airstrip and subsequent military base development. "Memorial Cemeteries" were laid out, but most of those graves held no remains, and the cemeteries were for ceremonial purposes only. Roughly half of the men who died on Betio were never recovered.

Mark had been active for many years in locating aircraft wrecks from the war and, when possible, finding remains of their aircrews for repatriation. Tarawa would prove to be a major effort and a daunting task. His previous trips to Tarawa included teams to search with ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which reveals where soil had been disturbed, as in digging a grave. This technology has been used extensively to locate "lost" graves in cemeteries, even Arlington National Cemetery.

The perfect cadaver dog for the job was located in California. "Buster," a seven-year-old male black Labrador retriever, had been extensively trained by his owner, Paul Dostie, a now-retired police investigator. Paul took soil samples from old West ghost town cemeteries to train Buster's nose to the scents of decomposing or degrading human bone. Working closely with Dr. Arpad Vass, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they could identify the organic compounds produced by decomposing bone through gas chromatography. Each type of bone is unique in the types and strengths of gasses emitted during degradation, and Buster can differentiate between human and other species, such as pig or dog bone. He only alerts on human bone remains.

Paul agreed to take Buster to Tarawa, but only if he could have some type of medical support during the trip. Mark Noah thought he had just the person to help out, and asked if I would accompany them for the upcoming trip. With my background on the history of Tarawa and expertise as a veterinarian, I was the perfect fit, and agreed to go along. History Flight is a non-profit organization that teaches about World War II history by giving flights in vintage aircraft, including a North American B-25, similar to the aircraft that flew out of Tarawa during the war. Mark is a pilot for United Parcel Service, and has many acquaintances in the airline industry. American Airlines offered to support the upcoming trip by providing for our air transportation, and they have been very helpful with military issues in general.

Our American military services hold written and unwritten promises to those who serve our country. That is, we will not leave you behind. We will recover your body and bring you home to your loved ones and families. But, sadly, that is not always possible. In war, some are totally destroyed in explosions or fires, lost at sea, or disappear in deep wilderness or jungle. On Tarawa's Betio Island, however, we know where they are; buried in the coral sand of a 285-acre island, smaller than the average farm in the United States. If you had 500 people buried on the family farm, would you be able to find their graves? After WWII ended, an effort was made to bring our war dead home. Over 78,000 today remain unrecovered, and the likelihood of their repatriation is slim.

Our group traveled from far reaches of the United States and Canada. James Harrison is from Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada, Mark Noah lives in Marathon, FL, and Paul Dostie resides in Mammoth Lakes, CA. Dr. Don Allen came from Youngstown, OH, Matt Benson from Duvall, WA, Jennie Sturm from Albuquerque, NM, and Chet Walker from Austin, TX. Marc Miller, our videographer, lives in Canoga Park, CA. Michael Rubin, Dallas, TX, of American Airlines, accompanied the group for several days, and we were joined on Tarawa by Matt Holly, who lives on Majuro in the Marshall Islands, and UPS pilot Marc Flagg from Miami. Keith Phillips, of Mill Valley, CA, also joined the mission on Tarawa.

Mark had organized previous trips to Tarawa, and he compiled an extensive report using the ground-penetrating radar results from focused surveys on Betio. "The Lost Graves of Tarawa" report was sent to members of Congress to seek support for a recovery mission to exhume remains. The Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command (JPAC) in Hawaii has the job of returning remains from military actions in the Pacific since World War II. They have located and returned many of those formerly listed as "missing in action" (MIA) from WWI, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

In August and September 2010, JPAC went to Tarawa on a 40-day recovery assignment, and were successful in gathering several skeletal remains. This trip would follow up on their work with improved technology and equipment. Plus a secret weapon – Buster! Two upgraded GPR units were included in the 17 containers and cases of equipment, along with an electro-magnetic induction meter (EM). A Trimble Global Positioning System would help pinpoint grave locations, with two Garmin hand-held units to get close and for general navigation.

On Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011, everyone headed to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for the Air Pacific flight to Fiji, then on to Tarawa. Many of us met for the first time in the American Airlines Admiral's Lounge at LAX. Mark held a press conference and briefing on the trip, with Capt. Steve Blankenship of American Airlines, Managing Director for Veterans Initiatives, and American Legion representative Kurt L. Hiete attending. A production team from 60 Minutes/24 Hours videotaped the briefing and interviewed team members.


It was not a smooth, seamless trip. When checking in at Air Pacific we thought we had all the paperwork necessary for Buster, including rabies vaccination documentation and health certificates. I had e-mailed the veterinary services representative on Kiribati and asked if there was anything they needed that I could bring with me on the trip. Her reply got bounced by my server, but was received by Mark. I didn't get the message in time that she wanted a new microchip reader. In 1999 I took a supply of microchips and a reader with me to donate to Tarawa's vet to help in identifying and controlling their exploding dog population.

We had received permission from Kiribati to bring Buster, (Tarawa is an atoll, part of the Republic of Kiribati), and it was sent in an e-mail to Mark. When we tried to print it out at LAX, the text was in the wrong format and we couldn't read it. So Mark sent the e-mail to the Air Pacific representative, Matilda, and she was able to get it in the proper format. She approved the flight and forwarded the e-mail to Fiji for their confirmation, too.

Getting permission to take Buster on the Air Pacific Boeing 747 was truly an ordeal to begin with. Their regulations only allow a human needs service dog to accompany its owner in the cabin. All others are relegated to cargo, and Paul would never put Buster in cargo due to possible risk of losing him. Since Buster is a search and rescue dog, not a human service animal, they were adamant in not allowing him in the cabin. After a lot of phone calls, pleading, reasoning, and promises, we were given the green light. With provisions. He was to be muzzled the entire trip, we had to have diapers ready and pee pads to soak up any accidents, and he was not allowed to bother any of the passengers. Plus we had to buy a ticket for him. We had three bulkhead seats in the front, right corner of the cabin and Buster slept the entire trip at our feet. The stewardesses laid out five blankets for him, didn't make him wear his muzzle, and all wanted pictures taken with him when we landed in Fiji.

In Fiji we met another roadblock. We should have had Matilda print us out a copy of the Kiribati permission e-mail, because they couldn't locate the forwarded copy. Phone calls to LAX back and forth. The captain of the plane to take us to Tarawa came down to the ticket counter and told us not to worry, that he wouldn't take off without us. Then at the last minute the agent wrote down what the permission e-mail said and who signed it, and that sufficed for us to go. Was that the end of Buster's and our problems? No. Arriving on Tarawa, we were met by the agriculture and animal health/quarantine representatives. They needed the microchip reader I was supposed to bring so that they could confirm that Buster was, indeed, the dog on the paperwork. Of course, that wasn't specified in her e-mail, or we would have brought it for sure. Also, Buster is not neutered. Only spayed or neutered dogs are allowed importation to Tarawa. I replied we weren't "importing" him, we were just going to work him for eight days. Didn't matter, Buster would be kept in a cage in quarantine while we were there. Again the reasoning, rationalizing, pleading, promising, and, yes, begging. Although it seemed like we were getting the "good cop/bad cop" treatment, they relented with the stipulation that Buster wear a makeshift diaper chastity belt, that the animal health representative accompany us during our work, and that Buster not leave our motel room except to relieve himself. They didn't want him breeding any of their local dogs! The young lady came with us the next day, and part of the following day, and when she saw Buster working, agreed that she didn't need to follow us the rest of the week.

We stayed at Mary's Motel on the west end of Bairiki, the last island of the atoll before Betio. In the early 1990's a Japanese construction company built connecting causeways between many of the islands, and the one between Bairiki and Betio is the longest. Although it allowed easy car access to the last island, it also significantly stopped the natural tidal flow from the ocean into the lagoon, all but eliminating the natural flushing effect on the lagoon beaches. Coupled with tremendous overpopulation of Betio, this led to pollution and contamination of the southern half of the lagoon.

I'm not sure if Mark and others in the team truly believed Buster was as good as Paul made him out to be, so on our first trip to Betio we pulled over on the east end, or "tail" of the island. Mark knew that there was supposed to be a trench burial in this area, and asked Paul to take Buster to a fence and work him east between the road and the beach. Paul first makes Buster sit, then asks, "Are you ready to work?" Buster replies with a bark and a whine, and Paul says, "Go find," and Buster is off. Within seconds Buster "alerted" on a find by lying down on the ground and looking at Paul. With lots of praise, "Good boy, Buster!", he then commands, "OK, find some more." Buster always alerts on the strongest scent, then goes to the second strongest. Within a couple yards, Buster alerts again. Then again and again, all in a straight line parallel to the road and beach, and then he stops near concrete and rebar wire remains of a pillbox.

He was tested on known human burial sites on the island to be sure of his ability. Now he was accepted as part of our search "team," and he would complement the work done by others in our group. Mark had pinpointed suspected American burial areas based on known historical data, and these were where the survey teams focused their attention. Mark was duly impressed, and said this was the exact area they had surveyed before and found disturbed earth, indicating a burial. There were supposed to be two trenches in this area near the last stand of the Japanese defenders, one for Japanese and one for Americans. Near the end of our trip Buster would check out an area south of the road and find multiple locations along a row of trees planted by an Australian organization, which appears to be another trench grave. Tree roots tend to facilitate the aromatic hydrocarbons of bone decomposition to reach the surface, and often Buster would alert near tree roots.

The objective was simple: locate the hundreds of lost Marine graves to help JPAC bring these brave men home. The task was, however, harder than you could imagine due to the hundreds of homes with cement slab floors and myriad thatch huts covering most of the island. There are also maneabas, or large, open communal gathering centers that also have cement floors. These act as community centers for neighborhood and family groups throughout Kiribati. One proved to be directly over a military cemetery.

The two GPR teams worked up and down coral roads and alleys, between houses and huts, to lay out a grid work of suspected areas of soil disturbance. The GPR not only detects soil disturbance, but also shows bodies within the disturbance, or anything "not the same as" the soil around it. The GM would then be used, and Buster would have his chance. It was all very time-consuming, but the massive amount of data collected would make location of the graves much more positive.

Did I mention the kids and dogs? Wherever we went, dozens of children would soon gather around, watching and laughing, asking questions in both understandable English and undecipherable Gilbertese. Loose dogs were everywhere as well, and proved to be challenging for Buster, who was invading their territories. We brought along three "Dazzer®s", which emit a high-frequency annoying sound that most dogs run away from, or at least stop in their tracks. One male shar-pei cross totally ignored two Dazzers, however, and managed to jump on Buster's back, but its owner soon took it under control and no harm was done.

Skeletal remains are often accidentally discovered when any digging is done on the island, and we were presented with a rice bag containing a number of human bones. Closer examination showed that they were from at least three people, and a Japanese bayonet was found with them. They appeared to be those of big men, possibly six feet tall, but the Japanese were known to have selected tall men for their marine "rikusentai" forces. Experts at JPAC would have to determine the difference.

Our ten days on Tarawa were all search, interview, locate, and plot. We made every day count, and covered a lot of ground, locating hundreds of possible graves. This was Mark's most concentrated effort yet to help bring home our brave Marines who died in the intense, horrific battle for Tarawa. The story won't be over until they are brought home, identified, and returned to their families throughout the USA.

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