She was nine years old when the whispering began in late December 1943.
Golden-haired, athletic, wary, and more than a little impetuous, Frances Bonnyman had attended five schools in the past year. She had liked Mrs. Turley’s one-room private academy in Santa Fe, where her family had been living since her father began operating a copper mine in 1938. She loved the exotic mélange of cultures—Spanish, Pueblo, Anglo—in the high-desert town at the foot of the pine-dark, sere Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where she attended Indian dances and picked up Spanish from neighborhood playmates.
She didn’t see much of her mother, Josephine, or Jo, but that was all right by her. She and her younger sister Tina were well cared for by the cook, Casamira, Sister Michelle, a nun hired by their grandmother to instruct them in the Catholic faith, and sometimes, the parents of friends and neighbors. Baby Alexandra, called Alix, was born in 1940 and had her own nurse, Miss Rosa Dee.
Fran didn’t see a lot of her father, either. Tall, handsome Alexander Bonnyman, Jr.—known to all as Sandy—spent five or six days a week running the mine near Santa Rosa, more than a hundred miles of bad road distant, on the spare plains of eastern New Mexico. But he doted on his oldest daughter when he came home on weekends, holding her hand as they walked in to Sunday Mass at the soaring, ornate Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Afterwards, they always went to the Capitol Pharmacy soda fountain for a chocolate shake or soda.
Fran would never forget one Sunday in particular, as she watched her father pace the floor with intense agitation, the radio buzzing and crackling in the background with the frightening news that the Japanese Empire had attacked the United States at faraway Pearl Harbor. Seven months later, her father, thirty-two, would board a train to California as a private in the United States Marine Corps Reserve.
Fran missed him and wrote him often on cream-colored stationery with the image of a small, smiling marine in dress blues on top: “When are you coming home? I wish I could see you now!”[i] Sandy wrote to his “big girl” just as often, urging her to keep up her straight A’s, go to Communion every Sunday and confession at least every two weeks, be nice to her sisters, and help “Mommie” and Dee. He sent her dollar bills for doing chin-ups and improving her swimming skills.
The summer of 1943, Jo left the girls in Knoxville to stay with their Granny and Grandfather Bonnyman. But at summer’s end, instead of taking them back to New Mexico, she enrolled Fran in school in Tennessee, left frail, sickly Tina in Knoxville, and moved with baby Alix and Dee to Mooney’s Cottages, a cluster of new, Key West-style bungalows on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Jo returned in November to take Fran to Florida, leaving Tina with her grandparents.
As Christmas approached, Fran was excited to hear hopeful chatter among the adults that her father might come home to visit. Her cousin Sandy, just six months older, had received a V-Mail in mid-December, postmarked November 16 and featuring a cartoon crocodile in a marine helmet proclaiming, “To you in the States from us in the South Pacific, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” and the hand-written message, “To Sandy with wishes for the Best of Christmases from Uncle Sandy.” But Fran hadn’t had a letter in many weeks.
What Fran, Jo, and her grandparents didn’t know was that Sandy had sailed from Wellington, New Zealand on November 1, arriving a week later at Mele Bay on the island of Efate in the Solomon Islands, where the Second Marine Division rehearsed amphibious landings in preparation for an assault on a remote coral atoll nobody had ever heard of. But by the end of the month the name would be splashed across front pages as the site of the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history: Tarawa.