Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs officials are digging up the remains of 94 Marines and sailors killed on a remote atoll in the Pacific during one of the bloodiest engagements of World War II, the Associated Press reports.

The servicemen died in the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 and were buried as unknowns at a national cemetery in Honolulu after the war. Now, thanks to recent advances in DNA technology, they may finally be identified.

On Nov. 20, 1943, 18,000 U.S. troops stormed the tiny island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, located about 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu. The heavily fortified island was manned by 3,500 Japanese troops, bolstered by a contingent of 1,200 Korean slave laborers.  

With their overwhelming numbers, the Americans were expected to easily secure Betio, which Tokyo had seized from the British three days after the Pearl Harbor attack. It was the first major amphibious assault of the war. Nobody foresaw the nightmare that unfolded just as soon as the operation began.

Because of low tides, U.S. landing crafts snagged on the coral reefs encircling the island, and the Marines were forced to wade for hours through hundreds of yards of chest-deep water under withering machine-gun fire. The coastlines — dubbed the Red Beaches — were strewn with barbed wire, and beyond them stood a line of Japanese bunkers concealed beneath mounds of sand.

The Marines who did make it to shore found themselves in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

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“The Japanese are screaming, and I hear firing, and after a while they get so close, there’s no firing,” one Marine who fought in the battle later recalled in a video interview with the American Heroes Channel. “That’s when your enemy is within arm’s length. That’s when you probably smell his breath, and you’re there to kill each other.”

The battle lasted 76 hours, but the island was secured. More than 990 Marines and 30 sailors were killed in the fighting. Only 17 Japanese troops and 129 Korean slave laborers survived.

Four Medals of Honor, 34 Navy Crosses, and about 250 Silver Stars were earned at Tarawa, according to Stars and Stripes.

About 550 of the Americans who died in Tarawa have not yet been identified.  The cemetery where some of their remains are buried in Honolulu is known as the Punchbowl, and also houses the remains of hundreds of Americans who were killed in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency spokeswoman Maj. Natasha Waggoner told the AP that identifying the remains could be a lengthy process.

In the case of nearly 400 unknowns from the USS Oklahoma who were killed in the Pearl Harbor attack and recently dug up from the Punchbowl cemetery, identification could take five years, Waggoner said. The remains of all those killed in the Battle of Tarawa may require even more time, because some are still in Tarawa.

Waggoner did not provide an estimate for how long that might take.