Orangeburg man posthumously honored 60 years after World War II
By RICHARD WALKER, T&D Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Sixty years after the war and 34 years after his tragic death, the secret missions of an American warrior have been recognized by a grateful foreign nation.
In a surprise ceremony, Orangeburg native Conway Bonnett was posthumously given a Sino-American Cooperative Organization medal to honor his service in World War II China.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Bonnett’s wife, May, said recently after the medal was presented to her. “In a way, it brings closure.”
During the ceremony at the Memorial Church of the Nazarene, medal presenter Russ Cline said it was Bonnett’s son, Tommy Bonnett, who worked for more than a year to orchestrate the reception of the medal.
“Through a lot of work, through a lot of trials, through a lot of visiting, through a lot of travel to Florida and other places, he has been able to get the medal your husband so rightly deserves,” Cline said, as he presented the SACO medal.
Cline told church members that Conway Bonnett and his unit, the Scouts and Raiders, a forerunner of today’s Navy Seals, fought against Japanese brutalities, such as the murder of pregnant women and infant males.
“Her husband was a boatsmate and went to China and saw these atrocities,” Cline said. “And more than that I will not get into.”
The medal was specifically designed to honor those Americans who helped break a tightening Japanese grip on the Chinese mainland.
The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan), having learned the unit’s surviving members were active in their annual reunions, saw an opportunity to thank the unit, Tommy Bonnett said.
“They didn’t want to give it to just anybody,” Tommy Bonnett said. “It had to be a family member.”
In a ceremony in California on Nov. 14, a delegation representing the Republic of China , which is also known as Taiwan, presented the medals to those members in attendance. And one for Conway Bonnett.
A former Navy submariner himself, Cline said he spent the two weeks prior to the ceremony bracing himself for what he knew would be an emotional day.
“I was delighted,” Cline said of his being chosen to present Bonnett’s medal. “This man, he deserved the medal, he deserves a lot of people’s gratitude.”
Today, the Navy Seals are one of the most feared military units in the world. But in the summer of 1942, they were an idea that only existed on paper.
The unit was first called the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, who not only had to be fit physically, but mentally as well. The members became the pioneers in “sneak and peek” reconnaissance missions, stealthy swimming and scouting tactics.
The Scouts and Raiders were first tested in North Africa and Europe. From there, they were shipped into China to aid that country in its efforts to halt the invading Japanese.
Although they participated in some of the most dramatic campaigns in the entire war, no one was allowed to tell the tale, said Richard Rutan in a telephone interview from his California home. He is one of the surviving members of the top-secret unit.
“We weren’t allowed to talk to any of the others in SACO,” Rutan said. “We weren’t allowed to talk to anybody. We had to take an oath to the death.”
The unit was formed through an agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chinese General Tai Li. It was the only time in history that an American fighting force was woven into a foreign military force and commanded by a foreign leader.
“They were all volunteers, and there were roughly 2,500 members,” Rutan said.
Some were weather watchers, others, like Rutan, were radio operators, while still some were demolition experts.
Although he wasn’t positive, Rutan checked his own records and believes there’s a chance he and Bonnett served in the same unit.
When told of the medal’s surprise presentation to May Bonnett, Rutan said, “I think that’s an unusual way to present it, I wish I could see that.”
The Amphibious Scouts and Raiders are credited with killing more than 18,000 Japanese combatants in their service between 1942 and 1945.
Meanwhile, May Bonnett said Conway never spoke of his role in the war. Rather, he would sit in his favorite chair in their Orangeburg home, staring out the window.
Bonnett believes her husband’s war continued for the rest of his life. She believes he relived the horrors of the war’s killing while sitting in his favorite chair.
But Conway Bonnett’s war came to an end in June of 1971. At age 46, he took his own life.
“Most of us don’t appreciate our servicemen,” May Bonnett said. “We don’t know what they go through for our freedom. I think anybody who puts them down needs to be looking at their own lives on the inside.”
May said Conway was her first love, the love of her life. Since Conway’s death, she’s never remarried.
Along with the 1993 release of “Scouts and Raiders,” a book chronicling the unit’s campaigns, Bonnett said the medal signifies the sacrifices her husband made, in life and now in death, so that others would be free.
“At least now we can understand why he was so depressed,” said an emotional May Bonnett. “I guess it ... it’s just something I wish he would have lived to get.”
Scouts and Raiders Book
Incredible. They killed 7 times their own number, in total secrecy. I'm going to have to read that book.