The Tarawa Project Part II: Resolved Commingling and Identification of Casualties from the Battle of Tarawa

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Audrey L. Scott
Heli Maijanen
Rebecca J. Taylor
Anthony J. Koehl
Willa R. Trask


The Battle of Tarawa during World War II resulted in over 7,000 casualties on an approximately three-square-mile Pacific island that necessitated hasty burials, often with poor associated documentation. The loss of original burial information combined with postwar cemetery consolidation efforts resulted in the commingling, disassociation, and loss of identity of casualty remains. This report discusses two cases that are the product of ongoing efforts to recover remains still buried on the Tarawa Atoll and to identify Tarawa unknowns disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Both cases involve the reassociation of disinterred elements to elements recently excavated from their original wartime burial locations on Betio Island. These cases illustrate the steps taken to reassociate elements, the multiple lines of evidence necessary to do so, and the eventual outcome of Tarawa Project identification efforts.

Dental and chest radiograph comparisons of the disinterred remains were used to create and narrow short lists of unaccounted-for service members. These comparisons were combined with historical documentation and DNA analysis of remains recovered from the Tarawa Atoll to suggest association of additional elements. Articulation, refitting of fragments, pair-matching, and osteometric sorting supported the association of the disparate elements to single individuals. Ultimately, the dental and chest radiograph comparisons, biological profile, DNA testing, and historical data led to the positive identification of both individuals. The complicated nature of the Tarawa commingled assemblage emphasizes the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to the resolution and identification of commingled human remains.

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