A sea of people lined the streets, right hands over their hearts. Small American flags blew in the warm summer wind. Military, Police, fire fighters and civic volunteers stood at attention. A shiny black hearse adorned with a small Marine Corps sticker slowly drove down Hudson Ave. Inside, a lost Marine made his way home and was taken to his final resting place.
Pfc. George H. Traver was killed in action on Nov. 20, 1943. His body was one of many found earlier this year in the Gilbert Islands, just off the coast of Hawaii.
Traver’s remains were flown from a military laboratory in Hawaii to the Albany International Airport on Aug. 26th, 2016, where Marines received the casket and performed military honors. Two days later, hundreds of citizens, many with no relation to Traver, came out to celebrate the return of his remains during a processional to and from a funeral service held in his honor at the St. James Catholic church in his hometown of Chatham, New York.
“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,’” said George Traver, nephew of Pfc. Traver.
Traver, the fourth of five siblings, enlisted in the Marine Corps on Jan. 22, 1942, the month following the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, and served in the South Pacific during World War II. Later that year, he was wounded at Guadalcanal and received a Purple Heart.
He was sent to New Zealand for a short time to recover before returning to the front lines, according to his family. In November 1943, he paid the ultimate sacrifice during the battle of Tarawa, a joint Navy-Army-Marine mission. The mission was the first and largest American offensive in the Pacific region. Sixty-six destroyers, 36 transport ships, 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, eight heavy cruisers, and four light cruisers sought to usurp a Japanese airstrip. Nearly 1700 American sailors and Marines died during the battle, and more than 2,000 were wounded. The tiny island became known as, “one square mile of hell.”
His mother received a Western Union telegram more than a month later which read, “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.” His fellow Marines also mailed back several personal effects, including a Japanese wooden box with a tin nameplate nailed onto it, a Marine logo, and a cross. His mother kept that box and added his Boy Scout awards, high school awards, and every remnant of his short military career, including his two Purple Hearts, Marine awards, letters of commendation, and letters of condolence.
After his death, Travers mother was inducted into the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women who have lost children in service to their country.
On May 28, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion made by the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses that American women should wear a black band on the left arm with a gilt star on the band for each member of the family who has given his life for the nation, according to their website.
His mother would often participate in the town’s Memorial Day parade, riding in a convertible alongside other Gold Star Moms, recalled her grandson, David Silliman.
“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 Mother’s,’” said Silliman. He heard stories of his uncle, the “war hero” and pieced together a biography from newspaper clippings and letters Traver had written home to his mother.
Eventually, the family stopped talking about his death, except to tell the younger generations not to join the Marines. “They felt they gave enough to the Marines,” said Al Wheeler, great-nephew of Traver.
His remains were found this past spring with help from ground-penetrating radar and volunteers with History Flight, a non-profit organization. History Flight strives to honor and locate the remains of more than 78,000 American service members still missing in action from World War II, according to their website.
“We all have one thing in common, we believe in the motto that no American service member should ever be left behind,” said Paul Schwimmer, a volunteer with History flight. One member of the History Flight who was integral in finding the remains was Buster, a cadaver dog who specialized in sniffing out 70-year-old graves.
When he sensed the remains of Traver and other Marines, he sat down and began barking. Traver was found with three-dozen other fallen Marines in shallow trenches and was identified using dental records and a Boy Scout pocket knife he carried with him. Although rusted, the emblem on the knife was clearly discernable.
“You see things like this on TV, especially with the different ceremonies for the GIs that got lost and stuff like this other the years, but to be a part of it…it’s something that you’ll never forget,” said G. Traver, nephew of Pfc. Traver.
Members of the Traver family said that although his mother died in 1975, she finally got her dying wish that her son returned home from war.
Story by Tech. Sgt. Amelia Leonard