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The Legacy of Alexander Bonnyman Jr.

The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center Opens New Bonnyman Jr. Exhibit

Article by Ryleigh Roberts

Photography by Courtesy of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

Originally published in Chattanooga City Lifestyle

Located in the heart of downtown Chattanooga, the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is dedicated to telling the stories of Medal of Honor recipients. The Medal of Honor is the United States government’s highest military decoration, and it is awarded for distinguished acts of valor. The first Medal of Honor was awarded in Chattanooga, putting the museum in the perfect location to teach people about our nation’s heroes. 

Director of Education at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, Hannah Sher, talked with Chattanooga City Lifestyle about the museum and the opening of an exciting new exhibit. The museum covers a broad span of history, starting with the stories of the first medal recipients, moving throughout history up to the present day. The Heritage Center’s key focus is on education. This focus is shown through their mission to instill visitors with the same values “demonstrated by Medal of Honor recipients– patriotism, courage, citizenship, integrity, sacrifice, and commitment.” As the embodiment of these values, and the first significant addition to the museum’s permanent gallery, the new exhibit will tell the story of Alexander Bonnyman Jr., a notable recipient of the Medal of Honor. 

In their commitment to prioritize and celebrate stories, Hannah Sher talked specifically about the Bonnyman exhibit saying, “It’s a huge honor that the Bonnyman family chose us to be the official repository of all things related to Alexander Bonnyman Jr.” Sher explained that the family enabled the museum to share Bonnyman Jr.’s story, giving him the recognition he deserves. 

Alexander Bonnyman Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910. At two years old, he and his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father was the president of a large coal company. Hannah Sher described Bonnyman Jr. before his service, saying that he initially was a very “restless” man who was “always seeking adventure.” Bonnyman Jr. would soon enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1932 as a Flying Cadet and be sent to flight school. Later that same year, he was honorably discharged, and he went to work alongside his father at the coal company before acquiring his own mine in New Mexico in 1938. 

When the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in 1941, Bonnyman Jr. experienced his call to action at 32 years old. He self-enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Private and was promoted to First Lieutenant only a year later. In 1943, Bonnyman fought in the three-day Battle of Tarawa for control of the island. He gave his life in the battle, and this heroic action posthumously earned him a Medal of Honor award presented to his daughter in 1947. His remains were never recovered due to the chaos of the war which led to the Army Graves Registration Service being wrong about where the bodies were buried. However, his grandson later joined a nonprofit that was able to recover his remains in 2015 and bring them back for reburial. 

Hannah Sher explains why this exhibit is so significant, saying, “This story is not just something that happened during WWII. It ties all the way up to the present day.” She continued, explaining that “when the visitors interact with the exhibit, they will garner an understanding that this is living history continuing on even now.” 

The focus on living history is paramount to education as many may feel history does not apply to their present lives when the reality is that history is a constant continuation—collections of connecting stories. This emphasis on stories is what makes this and many other exhibits at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center unique. They teach us not only about the medal earned, but also about the stories of Bonnyman Jr. and countless others who have had a significant influence on the world today. 

The museum prioritizes diversity in its programming with something for everyone. Visit their website at for information about special events, including exhibit openings, lectures, and book clubs. The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is located at 2 West Aquarium Way and is open Monday-Saturday from 9:00AM-5:00PM and Sunday from 10:00AM-3:30PM.

  • Alexander Bonnyman Jr.
  • Alexander Bonnyman Jr.