The Tarawa Project Part I: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Resolve Commingled Human Remains from the Battle of Tarawa

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


As part of the U.S. Navy’s campaign against the Japanese during World War II, the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 resulted in over 1,100 U.S. and over 6,000 Japanese and Korean conscript casualties on and around Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Republic of Kiribati. Casualties were buried in isolated and mass graves, which were negatively affected by the wartime renovations of the island, resulting in only ~47% of the remains being recovered in the late 1940s. The nature of the wartime burials, multiple postwar disinterments and reinterments, identification efforts in the late 1940s, and postwar anthropogenic changes to the island by the local population have contributed to the commingling of casualties. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency established the Tarawa Project in 2016 to assist in the sorting, association, and identification of the often commingled remains recovered directly from the Republic of Kiribati and 94 caskets of Battle of Tarawa unknowns disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawai’i. The project has been able to confirm a minimum number of individuals (MNI) of 243 based on unique mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences, while inventory of ~9,000 elements indicates a MNI of 131 from disinterments and 96 from recent field recoveries. The Tarawa Project has used a combination of historical research, DNA testing, chest radiograph and odontological comparisons, and forensic anthropological and material evidence analyses to help identify 41 of the 84 total service members accounted for from the Battle of Tarawa since the 1940s.

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