Remains of WWII Marine casualty George Traver return to Chatham

Reprinted with permission from the Times Union

CHATHAM–After nearly 73 years the remains of U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. George H. Traver of Chatham, who was killed in combat in the Pacific during World War II, are finally coming home.

His bones were located with the assistance of ground-penetrating radar, a dog specially trained to find human remains and volunteer searchers with History Flight, an organization committed to finding, recovering and repatriating 84,000 missing service members from America’s wars of the 20th century.

Pfc. Traver was 25 years old when he was killed on November 20, 1943, on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. It was the first American offensive against Japanese forces in the strategic central Pacific region.

33 16news WWII Traver box

Storage box in George Traver’s home with material related to his uncle and namesake, George H. Traver, a World War II Marine killed in action in 1943. Lori Van Buren/Times Union

His remains will be flown from a military laboratory in Hawaii to the Albany International Airport on August 26. Marines will carry a wooden coffin draped with an American flag to a receiving line with more than a dozen of Traver’s family members waiting on the tarmac. A motorcade led by Patriot Guard motorcycle riders will travel to Chatham, where there will be a weekend of public events, including a wake, funeral and burial with full military honors.

It offers a sense of closure for relatives who are too young to have known the fallen Marine, who would have been 98 years old this year.

In one of the last letters he mailed home, Traver conceded he was homesick. “I want to be home again, together with my family,” he wrote.

In his hometown of Chatham, Traver, who stood 6-foot-4, had been a popular kid with an easygoing nature. He was a good athlete and a Boy Scout who dropped out of Chatham High School at 16 to work on the New York Central Railroad with his father, an engineer.

Not long before he died, Traver wrote to his mother and asked for her to send two things: new batteries for a portable radio his girlfriend gave him and his trusty Boy Scout knife. He said he wanted to carry a little piece of home with him into battle.

Traver died in the first wave of the Marine assault against Japanese troops on the heavily fortified island of Betio. In 76 hours of hellish fighting for control of a Japanese airstrip, 1,009 Marines were killed and 2,101 were wounded. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war that left nearly 6,400 GIs, Japanese soldiers and Korean forced laborers dead.

The tiny island became known as “one square mile of hell.”

The 18,000 Marines sent to Betio were expected to take over the airfield easily and secure the island quickly. The enemy’s strength of 4,500 Japanese troops dug into trenches was badly underestimated. The amphibious assault was troubled from the outset. Low tides exposed coral reefs that grounded some landing craft far from shore. Many Marines drowned or were shot to death as they waded hundreds of yards in chest-deep water through heavy enemy fire.

An autopsy revealed that there were no bullet wounds in Traver’s skeleton, so it is surmised he died in an artillery explosion.

He was buried hastily in a trench along with hundreds of other Marines on a slender slash of coral and sand. There was not enough time to make detailed burial records or maps. The equatorial heat rotted the corpses and made the killing ground unbearable.

Meanwhile, the war raged on in the Pacific.

The Marine Corps motto embedded in the Latin phrase nemo resideo, or “leave no one behind,” was severely tested.

Back home in Chatham, time seemed to stand still. The horrors of a battle so far away became a distant horizon for a Gold Star Mother, Nellie Virginia Traver.

When Traver’s body was not found in the months after the Battle of Tarawa, his mother had to cancel a funeral she had planned for her son at the Chatham Methodist Church on January 20, 1944.

“As a young kid, I remember going to family picnics and seeing my heartbroken grandmother. She’d say over and over again, ‘I wish they’d find George. I wish they’d find George,’” recalled George Traver, 72, named for his late uncle.

Traver’s mother rode with other Gold Star Mothers in a convertible along Chatham’s Main Street in the Memorial Day parade.

“I’d watch my grandmother in the convertible and they shushed us kids and told us as they drove past, ‘Please, no applause for the Gold Star Mothers,’” recalled David Silliman, 63. He grew up hearing stories of his uncle the war hero. He tried to piece together a biography of sorts from brittle, yellowed newspaper clippings and a bundle of letters Traver wrote to his mother during the war. “Hello, Mom!” the letters began and they ended, “Love, George.”

She saved it all, including a Western Union telegram that arrived at Chatham on December 23, 1943. “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”

The Marines mailed Traver’s few personal effects, including a Japanese wooden box he picked up on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. He nailed a tin nameplate and the Marine logo to the box, along with a cross. His mother gathered his short life in that box: Boy Scout awards, high school athletic letters and every scrap from his brief military career, including two Purple Hearts, Marine awards, letters of commendation and notes of condolence.

A Marine captain wrote: “Although he was only a Private First Class, his reputation was that of the best Supply Sergeant in our regiment.”

After working on the railroad for six years, Traver, the fourth of five siblings, enlisted in the Marines on January 22, 1942, six weeks after Pearl Harbor. He completed training in San Diego and was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.

He was wounded in the Guadalcanal campaign on Nov. 13, 1942, and received his first Purple Heart. He was sent to New Zealand to recuperate from his injuries. The hospitals were filled with wounded soldiers and he was placed in the home of a local family.

A year later, he was killed on Tarawa, along with seven out of every 10 members of K Company.

“We know he made it onto the island and he was killed sometime in the afternoon of November 20,” said his nephew.

Three generations passed.

His father, Charles Van Traver, died in 1963. His mother died in 1975 at age 90. They were buried in Chatham Rural Cemetery along with three of Traver’s siblings, the last of whom died in 2012.

“The family stopped talking about it, other than to tell us young kids not to go into the Marines. They felt they gave enough to the Marines,” said Al Wheeler, 58, of East Greenbush, a great-nephew. “I wouldn’t call it closure now that they found his remains. It rakes up a lot of difficult feelings.”

History Flight searchers located Traver’s remains on May 24, 2015, along with three dozen other Marines, including Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr.

Military officials identified Traver by dental records and his Boy Scout pocket knife. The blade was badly rusted, but the Boy Scout emblem was intact.

On August 28, following a rifle salute and playing of taps, a coffin with Traver’s remains will be lowered into the ground at Chatham Rural Cemetery, next to his Gold Star Mother.

“It was always my grandmother’s wish to get her son back,” said his nephew. “She’ll finally get her wish.”

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