Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – It all came together because of “one little side note” on an enlistment form.
When Marine Corps Platoon Sgt. George E. Trotter joined the military nearly a century ago, he listed his sister as his next-of-kin.
According to his great-great-niece Ashley O’Brian, it’s that small detail that led a Marine-contracted genealogist to her about a year ago, as part of a search for living family members of Trotter, a fallen World War II soldier whose remains had never been identified.
The search had proven difficult, O’Brian explained, because Trotter had changed his name before he joined the service. O’Brian’s family never knew he existed.
But O’Brian, 48, of Austin, had listed her great-grandmother Denise Battraw, the sister Trotter noted on his enlistment form, in her own Ancestry.com profile.
After the genealogist discovered that connection and reached out to O’Brian, DNA samples confirmed Trotter’s identification.
Trotter, who was born in small-town South Dakota, was 38 when he was killed in the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943. Trotter, like the other service members who died in action during the three-day battle in the Pacific, was buried in a battlefield cemetery, and his remains were not identifiable during recovery operations in 1946 and 1947.
In 1949, unidentified remains from the battle were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu, also known as the Punchbowl.
In March 2017, scientists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) disinterred the remains that turned out to be Trotter’s so they could be re-examined using modern technology. And in April 2019, he was officially – and finally – accounted for with the DNA matches from O’Brian and her mother, Mary Gould of Taos. Gould is Trotter’s great-niece.
Following a funeral service in Taos, Trotter’s remains were escorted to the National Cemetery in Santa Fe on Friday for a burial service with full military honors, including a Marine Corps honor guard from Albuquerque. Lt. Gov. Howie Morales was also in attendance to present the family with a state flag that has flown over the state Capitol.
“It’s all been very fascinating and very interesting for us,” O’Brian said of the entire experience. “And my mom is very proud to have been a part of this, as is the whole family.”
The call about Trotter’s identification came as a surprise to relatives who’d never heard of him, O’Brian said. He was born Frederick Battraw and her great-grandmother wasn’t known to have mentioned him when she was alive. He died before O’Brian’s mother was born.
The Battle of Tarawa against the Japanese took place on Betio on the Gilbert Islands. More than 1,000 U.S. Marines and sailors died and 2,000 were wounded in the effort to take the island from Japan whose forces were defeated.
Trotter’s identification is a part of the U.S. Military and the DPAA’s ongoing efforts to exhume and identify unidentified WWII soldiers through modern-day technology and family DNA, according to Santa Fe’s National Cemetery Director Jared Howard. He said the agencies have been looking at a large concentration of unknown remains from the Pacific Theater of World War II, a series of battles on islands.
According to the DPAA website, in 2016, the agency received approval to disinter 94 caskets with unidentified remains from the Battle of Tarawa, which are now being analyzed.
In Trotter’s case, the identification process – starting with the genealogist’s call to O’Brian – took about a year, according to O’Brian.
“This is not new to Santa Fe or a lot of other cemeteries nationwide,” said Howard. “A lot of these families want these loved ones back and have them close so they can visit them.”
The family isn’t completely sure why they’d never heard about Trotter, O’Brian said, but she said they do think he left South Dakota “as soon as he could” at age 18. Beyond that, they know he traveled around a bit and then enlisted in Kansas City, Mo., in the 1920s.
“I’d love to be able to find out more,” said O’Brian. “But since everyone who knew him has passed, it’s going to be a little hard to find out some stuff.”
Trotter is also survived by O’Brian’s children, a great-nephew Henry Roy Liles and his wife, along with other great-great nieces, nephews, and other relatives.