Claire E. Goldtrap

ACCOUNTED FOR

NAME
Claire Eulin Goldtrap
NICKNAME
Goldy
SERVICE NUMBER
285789
UNIT
Company A
2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion
Driver
HOME OF RECORD
Route 2, Hobart, OK
NEXT OF KIN
Mother, Mrs. Lala B. Goldtrap
DATE OF BIRTH
April 10, 1922
ENTERED SERVICE
June 18, 1940
DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
REGION
Gilbert Islands
CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
CASUALTY TYPE
Killed In Action
CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
Corporal Claire E. “Goldy” Goldtrap was killed in action on 20 November 1943, during the first day of the battle for Betio, Tarawa atoll. His remains were buried without identification, and in 1949 he was declared non-recoverable.

Goldtrap’s remains were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and officially identified on 1 June 2018.

INDIVIDUAL DECORATIONS
Purple Heart
LAST KNOWN RANK
Corporal
STATUS OF REMAINS
Accounted For

DPAA Announcement
MEMORIALS
Hobart Cemetery
Honolulu Memorial
Claire Goldtrap’s enlistment photo, 1940.

Claire Goldtrap was born on 10 April 1922, the fourth and final son of John and Lala Goldtrap of Hobart, Oklahoma. He grew up on the family farm in Kiowa County, Oklahoma, not far from the county seat in Hobart. The Goldtrap brothers (Claire was junior to Ralph, John, and William) each attended school through the eighth grade, and then became farmers themselves. Claire himself was following this trend, as well – in the 1940 census, he was still living at home and helping out on the farm – but that summer he sent his life in a radically different trajectory by enlisting in the Marine Corps. He was just a few months over eighteen.

The training regimen at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego was punishing, but “Goldy” appears to have excelled under the strain. He distinguished himself on the rifle range, earning the coveted badge (and extra pay) of an expert rifleman on 9 August 1940. Rather appropriately, he was assigned to the range detachment after boot camp, where he briefly studied to be a rifle coach before winding up in the slightly less glamorous role of “Post Maintenance.” While there, he cemented a friendship with John H. Moore, a buddy from boot camp also assigned to the rifle range. The two were promoted to Private First Class early in 1941; a few months later, Private Edward J. Moore – John Moore’s younger brother – also joined the detachment.[1] “Goldy,” “Big Moore,” and “Little Moore” spent a lot of their off-duty time together; when “Big Moore” bought a souvenir album to save the photos of their adventures, Goldtrap was the first to sign the autograph page.

PFC Goldy, 1941; location unknown. Courtesy Al Guerrero / Katie Rasdorf.

In the summer of 1941, Goldy was reassigned from his maintenance job to that of “tractor operator.” His agricultural background might have led to this new assignment; although the “tractors” in question were tracked military vehicles, the Marine Corps found that farm boys with equipment experience were natural adepts for this sort of work. When a call went out for volunteers to join a new amphibious tractor unit, Goldy and John put in their names, and were quickly accepted. They departed from San Diego in September 1941, leaving behind a disappointed Ed Moore, who did not have enough time in uniform to transfer.[2]

Goldy and John were bound for Dunedin, Florida, home of the Food Machinery Corporation. This company was best known for building citrus processing machines; however, they had a successful sideline producing parts for an unusual amphibious vehicle designed by Donald Roebling. The “Alligator” was conceived as a civilian swamp-crawler, but swiftly attracted military attention; by early 1941, Roebling had a government contract and the FMC plant was building hulls and assembling the vehicles on site. The first Marine Corps “Landing Vehicle, Tracked, Model 1” rolled off the FMC line in August 1941, shortly before the first of the crews arrived. “The LVT(1) was constructed of 12-gauge steel plating, weighed 17,500 pounds, and was powered by a 146-horsepower Hercules WXLC 3 engine,” notes Major Richard W. Roan. “The vehicle, still called the Alligator by its Marine Corps crewmen, had a land speed of 18 m.p.h. and a water speed of 7 m.p.h. The cargo capacity of the LVT(l) was 4,000 pounds.”

The Tampa Bay Times, 22 September 1941.

A “steady flow” of Marines arrived for training, and their green uniforms were commonly seen around the Hotel Dunedin until their barracks were completed. They would have their work cut out for them: the Alligator was not easily mastered. “The vehicle was far from perfect,” continues Roan. “The Marine Corps’ first amphibian tractor required incessant maintenance and repair. Every vehicle would break down every day.”[3] Every crewman quickly learned the ins and outs of his vehicle; some, like John Moore, would eventually specialize as mechanics. Outside of the daily routine of drills and maintenance, there were questions of theory to consider. Not only were the ‘tracks new to the men, they were new to the Corps, and there were few set precedents about how they should be used or deployed. “For the most part, all Fleet Marine Force units had defined missions and conformed to established organizational and operational precedents,” wrote Victor J. Croziat. “The amphibian tractor units, however, had nothing to fall back on. They had no manuals, no experience, no antecedents, and only the vaguest of functions.”[4]

Finally, the men themselves were a disparate group, from crusty old “China hands” to new recruits fresh out of boot camp. Their trials of Dunedin were a great leveler. “The diversity of these individuals lessened as the old-timers taught the youngsters to be Marines; it disappeared as all turned to the challenge of mastering the strange machines coming out of the Food Machinery Corporation plant,” continued Croziat. “It is notable that the brotherhood among amphibian tractor personnel created at Dunedin and later extended to all who served in amphibian tractor units survives to this day.”[5]

On 3 December 1941, the Marine Corps officially activated Company A, Second Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Goldy and Moore, both of whom were training on the “Crewman and Gunner” track, were among seventy men chosen for this new unit. They were preparing for a relocation to San Diego on 7 December, when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached their barracks. Eight days later, they departed Dunedin; by 19 December, they were back on the west coast and officially part of the 2nd Marine Division.

New corporals. “Big Moore” and “Goldy” in San Diego, January 1942. Photo courtesy Al Guerrero / Katie Rasdorf.

In January 1942, Goldy pinned on his second stripe. Now fully at war, the “Alligator” troops stepped up their training. Corporal Goldtrap participated in some exercises with the infantry, landing platoons from 2/2nd Marines in mock battles on the California coast. The crews were by now adept at handling the LVTs, and turned their expertise towards creating a doctrine for their use in combat. More men joined the unit, additional companies were formed, and Marines shuffled about to fill the expanding rosters. “Big Moore” was one such victim, transferred from Company A to the battalion headquarters. Once at full strength, the battalion spent several more months in San Diego engaged in training with the various ground combat units of their division. This close work would soon pay off: on 1 July 1942, Company A boarded transports along with the 2nd Marines and sailed out into the Pacific, bound for a classified destination.

Marine LVT(1)s during the invasion of Guadalcanal. These vehicles belonged to the 1st Amphibian Tractor battalion.

More than a month later, on 7 August 1942, Goldtrap’s transport was offshore of the island of Tulagi, listening to the crackling thunder of a naval bombardment and wondering how the infantry was faring. They had been well briefed on their role in “Operation Watchtower” – that “the LVTs were to come ashore after the assault troops, follow them with heavy weapons and ammunition, and later help move supplies as required,” in Croziat’s words. They were decidedly not to be used in combat situations, and certainly not for opposed landings – the armor plating was far too thin. Only a few of the Company A vehicles would actually see any service in the landings. Five Alligators of the Third Platoon made regular runs from the USS President Adams to the shores of Tulagi, delivering supplies and ammunition and returning with wounded men between 7–9 August. One aggressive LVT commander audaciously drove his vehicle inland and picked a fight with a Japanese strong point, demonstrating both the versatility of his craft and the bravery of his crew, who rescued seven wounded men.[6]

Goldy was not involved in these exploits – his First Platoon stayed aboard the USS President Jackson and manned the anti-aircraft guns.[7] He was, however, an unwilling participant in a great retreat. The disastrous Battle of Savo Island, in which five Allied cruisers were sunk and thousands of sailors killed, resulted in the immediate withdrawal of transports from the battle area – including those carrying the Second Amphtracs. They were finally put ashore at Espiritu Santo on 18 August, and immediately put to work on the growing base. The LVTs were ideal vehicles for bringing supplies and personnel from transports to shore.[8]

After their “action packed 24 hours,” Company A would play only a piecemeal part in the campaign for Guadalcanal. “As a consequence of Admiral Turner’s predilection for raider units, ‘A’ Company found itself reorganized as a provisional raider unit,” commented Croziat. “One month later, it was back as an amtrac unit, but for the next six months it provided personnel and detachments for a wide variety of unrelated duties.”[9] The balance of two platoons were eventually sent to the “zone of active operations.” Goldy, for his part, seems to have stayed on Santo for the duration.

One day, Goldy and Big Moore lit upon a novel idea to break the tedium of rear-area duty. Espiritu Santo was home to a seaplane base; every day, big PBY Catalina flying boats would roar out of the harbor and disappear over the horizon. The two Marines headed down to the base one morning and volunteered their services as temporary gunners. They were out for some adventure, but nearly got more than they bargained for: halfway through the patrol, Goldy spotted a trio of Japanese Zero fighters heading for Guadalcanal. He signaled the navigator by hand, and the pilot turned to follow the enemy. Fortunately, the Japanese were not interested in a fight. It was a relieved pair of Marines who landed back at Espiritu Santo that night. Goldy speculated that the Japanese had been out of ammunition, and concluded “What were we thinking? We’re Marines, not airmen!” The two collapsed in a fit of laughter.[10]

Another of Goldy’s escapades ended less fortuitously. On 10 November 1942, he was caught with unauthorized government property in his possession. It was his first disciplinary infraction in more than two years of service, but his skipper threw the book; Goldy was busted down to Private First Class and put on the extra duty list for two demoralizing months.

Goldy would be stuck on Santo with a special detail for weeks after the fighting on Guadalcanal ended and the balance of his battalion was enjoying the temptations of liberty in New Zealand. He must have been relieved to board the SS Island Mail and leave Santo behind for good. He got his first glimpse of Wellington on 19 March 1943, and shortly thereafter arrived at the camp at the Lower Hutt race track. There, he was reunited with both Big and Little Moores – Ed had finally managed a transfer to the unit after serving for months with 2nd Marine Division headquarters.

The first order of business was to go on liberty. Goldy earned back his corporal’s rating on the first of April, and Wellington was only a thirty-minute train ride away. Unfortunately, his first proper furlough was cut short by an unexpected trip to the hospital. He may have been suffering from malaria; the disease afflicted dozens of men in the unit, some more seriously than others. “Big Moore” caught a particularly bad case; in May of 1943, he had to be sent back to the States for treatment.[11] With his bosom buddy gone, Goldy wound up spending his time with other pals – Little Moore, of course, but also Richard “Buck” Sommerville, William W. Begin, and his crewmates, Robert Van Heck and Calvin F. Hackler.

After a few weeks of light duty, rigorous training began again. The Alligator Marines spent much of their time in New Zealand putting into practice the lessons learned in the Solomon Islands. The versatility of their unique vehicles had been noticed, as had their potential for landing troops over difficult beaches. No longer would they be relegated to a support role. In future operations, the LVTs would be the first ashore, and landing exercises were undertaken with their usual passengers, the 2nd Marines. The vehicles were overhauled, repaired, and updated for their new function. Additional machine gun mounts were bolted to the gunwales and cabin roof; some sprouted grapnels on their sterns to drag and destroy beach obstacles. Most crucially, crews bolted boilerplate armor to the cabins. This extra half-inch of protection was more of a mental bolster than anything; small-arms ammunition could still penetrate and ricochet about the interior with alarming ease. Goldy, Hackler, and Van Heck sweated over their own vehicle, which they christened an Elmer Fudd-ian “Wabbit Twacks.”[12]

During the summer and early fall of 1943, a trace of fatalism seemed to creep into Goldy’s outlook. Some of the practice exercises in Fiji, which emphasized crossing coral reefs, definitely underscored the dangers of the Alligators’ new mission. Death had already come close to his crew – Van Heck’s face and arms were scarred by burns suffered in an accident on Guadalcanal – and perhaps Goldy was calculating his chances of survival as the driver of a lightly armored and slow-moving target like an LVT.[13] The battalion’s vehicles were assigned numbers for ease of recognition during these exercises. Wabbit Twacks was #13; Goldy insisted on painting a smaller “½” beside the unlucky number. He started behaving differently, too. When Buck Sommerville attempted to repay a liberty loan, Goldy turned the money down, saying “Give it to Little Moore when you see him.” Although he found the request odd, Sommerville agreed.[14]

Ed Moore also noticed a change. After one practice landing in early November, he spotted Goldy sitting under a palm tree calmly reading a comic book. The two chatted for a while, then Goldy looked Little Moore square in the eye. “You know, Ed,” he said, “I don’t know where we are going, but I’m not coming back.” Moore stammered something about “just nerves” and “everything was going to be OK.” Goldy laughed, handed Ed some money he owed, and soon it was time to report back to the transports.

Ed Moore never forgot that conversation. It was the last time he ever saw Goldy.[15]

 

The island of Betio, codenamed HELEN, was still covered in darkness when the USS Thuban arrived in the designated transport area and began discharging its cargo of amphibian tractors and landing craft. Wabbit Twacks was loaded with extra ammunition; Goldy, Van Heck, and Hackler pitched their personal belongings aboard, and the LVT swung up over the deck and was lowered into the sea. The Thuban‘s crew was so well-trained that the complicated process of launching 12 tractors and 16 boats took only 39 minutes.[16] Once afloat, Goldy put Wabbit Twacks into gear, and headed off towards another transport carrying troops from the Third Battalion, 2nd Marines. They would make up the first wave of assault troops landing on a little strip of sand designated “Red Beach One.”

As the sun gradually rose on 20 November 1943, so too did the roar of naval gunfire directed at the tiny island that now lay shrouded in smoke. As they circled in the marshalling area, Goldy might have caught sight of LVT #49, “My Deloris,” and known that his buddy Little Moore was at the controls. My Deloris was to be the right guide vehicle for the assault wave; Wabbit Twacks was four to six spots further to the left. The tractors lurched and bobbed in the surf for what felt like an eternity; the infantry Marines in the back alternately singing “Ta-ra-wa-boom-de-ay!” and heaving their breakfasts all over the metal floor. At the given signal, the LVTs arranged themselves in a single line, then gunned their engines and headed for the beach.

Ed Moore, at the controls of My Deloris, was surprised to find “there was no firing from the beach as we approached.”[17] The LVTs hit the coral reef, tipped groaningly backwards, and lurched onto the solid surface. “Sometimes the treads would be swimming through deep water, most of the time they were just grinding across the coral,” recalled Gil Ferguson, a Marine aboard My Deloris. “But every inch of the way told us the enemy wasn’t dead. And as we got closer and closer the sounds of the guns and explosions became so loud they drowned out the tractor noises. The bright morning sun was quickly hidden by dense smoke from the fires and the guns. I began to feel sick.” Machine gun bullets stitched up the front of My Deloris, and Little Moore probably said a thousand thanks for the extra armor plating. Mortar and artillery rounds began throwing up torrents of water. The experience aboard Wabbit Twacks, just a few score yards away, must have been similar.

Little Moore’s “My Deloris” sits disabled after the battle. Note the divots made by MG fire against the armor plating on the front of the cabin, and Marine bodies lying on the pier and in the surf. NARA.

Two brave Marines from Item Company, 2nd Marines climbed up to man the guns mounted on Wabbit Twacks’ cabin; as he approached the beach, Goldy might have heard them open fire and the brass cartridge casings raining down on the roof above his head. At 9:10 plus a few seconds, LVT 13 ½ rumbled out of the surf and onto the shore of Betio. The sea wall ahead was four feet high, with an additional berm of loose sand piled on top; Goldy elected not to try and climb over and stopped the tractor right up against the obstacle. As the I/3/2 Marines rolled over the sides, the Wabbit Twacks crew scrambled out of their cabin. Hackler and Van Heck jumped up to man the guns, while Goldy hustled to throw boxes of ammunition onto the beach. The noise of gunfire and explosions was deafening; small-arms fire could penetrate the sides of the LVT at this range, and the infantry ashore were in a tough spot.

Wabbit Twacks was so close to the enemy that Hackler had trouble depressing his .50 caliber gun to shoot at them. “Hey, Goldy!” he yelled. “Back up so I can get a better shot!” Goldtrap pitched a last ammo can over the side and clambered back into his seat in the middle of the cabin. He yanked on the stick to put Wabbit Twacks in reverse; seconds later, a shell burst right in front of the tractor. Goldy stopped, startled; another shell hit immediately to the rear.

Van Heck knew what was about to happen. “Goldy! They have us in a bracket!” he screamed. “Let’s get out of here!” The two sergeants leaped down from their guns and piled into the cabin, Hackler on the right and Van Heck to the left. Goldy grabbed the sticks and once again slammed Wabbit Twacks into reverse.

Then the third shell hit.

Calvin Hackler found himself on the floor of the cabin. He was dazed, shaking his head from the concussion, bleeding from multiple lacerating wounds, choking on acrid smoke, the smell of gunpowder and fried machinery strong in his nostrils. His left arm hurt; he saw a bone sticking out. “Goldy!” he cried. “Bob!” No answer.

The smoke cleared somewhat, and Hackler beheld the “bloody mess” to his left. A large caliber shell, fired from a mortar or an anti-boat gun, had torn through the port side of the cabin. Van Heck and Goldtrap had taken the full force of the explosion; both were far beyond any human help. Hackler stumbled out of the charnel house, and with his good arm pulled himself up and over the side of Wabbit Twacks. “Doc!” he called to a nearby corpsman. “My arm is broken.” The sailor bent to examine the wound, and quickly pulled out the visible piece of bone.

It was one of Goldy’s ribs.

Hackler spent his balance of the battle of Tarawa up against the sea wall with a group of wounded Marines awaiting evacuation. At some point, he was visited by Sergeant Glen “Pop” Berger of his company. Hackler related the destruction of Wabbit Twacks before Pop moved on down the beach. Berger later encountered Little Moore, also lying wounded by the sea wall, and told the story of Goldy’s death. Both Hackler and Ed Moore were safely evacuated from Betio; while they eventually recovered from their physical wounds, the horrific fate of their friend Claire Goldtrap was a devastating blow.[18]

The smoking hulk of Wabbit Twacks remained on Beach Red One for the rest of the battle. Marine Corps camera crews documenting the devastation captured a brief shot of the Alligator where Claire Goldtrap and Robert Van Heck died.

When the bullets stopped flying, teams of stretcher bearers gradually worked their way down the Red Beaches, collecting bodies from the surf, the seawall, and the disabled vehicles that dotted the shore. Eventually, some of them reached Wabbit Twacks and braved the horrors of the cabin to remove the remains of the crew. Goldy, apparently, could still be identified; his body was carried to the East Division Cemetery and reportedly buried in Row C, Grave #16. [19] Van Heck was not so fortunate; his records reveal only a memorial grave. He was likely buried as an unknown.[20]

In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company arrived on Betio to consolidate the remains of the dead into a single cemetery, preparatory to sending them all to Hawaii for final identification. They were dismayed to find that the markers they found bore little or no resemblance to where remains were buried; while they might have expected to find Corporal Claire Eulin Goldtrap buried beneath the marker bearing his name, they quickly learned that this and all others were memorials only. (Quartermaster forms in Goldtrap’s Individual Deceased Personnel File do not even give a potential burial site.)

Excavations at “Cemetery 11” began in April. By this point, the 604th was used to the idea of memorial graves; they were even informed by the local garrison commander that “it would be hard to find the remains in this cemetery.” A few remains were quickly found, but it soon developed that most of “Cemetery 11” was a giant shell hole – and the bodies were more than two feet below the waterline. Pumps had to be requisitioned before work could continue; very few of the remains found had any means of identification.[21]

“Cemetery 11” on Betio, 1944. This was a memorial grave; no bodies lay beneath the markers. Official USMC photo.

One fairly complete set of bones was hauled from the pit along with a cigarette lighter. The skull was examined, teeth charted, and a photograph taken that showed a gaping hole in the left side. No identifying materials were found, and the man was buried in the Lone Palm Cemetery, Plot 4, Row 4, Grave 10 as “Unknown X-277.”

In 1947, Lone Palm was itself exhumed, and the remains therein shipped to Hawaii for examination at the Central Identification Laboratory. Anthropologists laid all of X-277’s bones out on a table; their trained eyes saw “a large, well-muscled, large-jointed, narrow-hipped young man with closely knit shoulders…. In profile, the nose appears to have had a slightly convex shape. The mouth parts are slightly projecting. The upper lip was probably short.” Dr. Charles Snow estimated that X-277 had been 22 or 23 years old, just under six feet tall, and weighed about 160 pounds. Tooth charts were taken, but no definitive matches could be made.[22] There was no apparent correlation between this individual and Claire Goldtrap; in fact, Goldy was deemed officially non-recoverable just one month before X-277 was laid to rest in Plot F, Grave 565 of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on 26 March 1949.

In October of 2016, X-277 was disinterred and sent back to the lab for analysis. Using modern methods of identification, including dental and anthropological data, circumstantial and material evidence, and DNA submitted by a family member, the unknown remains were officially identified as those of Claire Goldtrap on 1 June 2018.

Claire Eulin Goldtrap will be buried in Hobart, Oklahoma, beside his parents on 10 April 2019.

Special thanks to Al Guerrero
for the additional research and photographs appearing in this biography.


NOTES:
[1] Alfred Guerreo, “Goldy,” unpublished biography.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Richard W. Roan, Roebling’s Amphibian: The Origin of the Assault Amphibian.
[4] Victor J. Croziat, Across The Reef: The Amphibious Tracked Vehicle At War (New York: Arms and Armour Press, 1989), 38.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 44.
[7] Guerrero, “Goldy.” Guerrero states that John Moore did participate in the landings and was slightly wounded in action on 7 August 1942.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Croziat, 87.
[10] Guerrero.
[11] Muster rolls for “Co ‘A’, 2d Amphibian Tractor Bn, 2d Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force” show Goldtrap on furlough from April 6-15, then “sk hosp” from April 16-24. John Moore was on the same furlough, entered the hospital on April 22, and did not reemerge until May 19, at which time he was transferred back to the States. Goldy was hospitalized a few times while in New Zealand, which suggests a recurring ailment such as malaria.
[12] Guerrero states that Goldtrap was responsible for the name; the Marine was evidently a comic book aficionado and Elmer Fudd was a relatively new character at the time. In the summer of 1943, a B-17 bomber also named “Wabbit Twacks” was making newspaper headlines for its exploits over Europe. Any relation between the bomber and the LVT name is believed to be coincidental.
[13] Muster rolls for Company A, Second Amphibian Tractor Battalion, note that Van Heck “rec. burns on face & arms while repairing Amph Tractor (in line of duty).” He was hospitalized on Guadalcanal for two days, then flown to Efate for further treatment.
[14] Guerrero.
[15] Ibid.
[16] F. W. C. Zwicker, Thuban executive officer, “Report of Action – Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands,” 2 December 1943.
[17] Guerrero.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Casualty card for Claire Eulin Goldtrap reports “BURIED #13, Grave C, East Division Cemetery, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands.” A memorial grave was erected at “Cemetery #33, Grave #4, Row #2, Plot #14.” His cause of death is recorded as “gunshot wound, head.”
[20] Casualty card for Robert Fred Van Heck reports “body not recovered” but a memorial grave in “Cemetery #11, Grave #3, Row #3, Plot #3.” His cause of death is recorded as “multiple wounds.”
[21] 1Lt. Ira Eisensmith, “Memorandum to Chief, Memorial Branch, Quartermaster Section, Army Forces, Middle Pacific, 3 July 1946.”
[22] Schofield Mausoleum #1, Betio X-277.

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