Paul D. Gilman


Paul David Gilman
Company M
Third Battalion
8th Marines
212 North 6th Street, Belen, NM
Mother, Mrs. Sadie Gilman
January 11, 1924
January 5, 1942
November 20, 1943
Gilbert Islands
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action
PFC Paul D. Gilman served with M/3/8th Marines during the battle of Tarawa. He was killed in action by gunshot wounds on 20 November 1943, the same day he landed on Betio.

His remains were recovered from the site of Cemetery 27 in 2015, and officially accounted for 17 May 2018.

Purple Heart
Private First Class
Accounted For
DPAA News Release
Terrace Grove Cemetery, Belen, NM
Honolulu Memorial

Paul Gilman was born on 11 January 1924, the fifth of eight children raised by Charles and Sarah “Sadie” Gilman in Belen, New Mexico. He had, as far as is known, a fairly typical childhood in what was then quite a small city. All of the children – four boys and four girls – attended Baptist services and Belen schools. Paul and his older brother Earl were notable forces on the Belen High School football team; Paul even won a few mentions in the Albuquerque newspapers for his prowess as a tackle. Charles worked at the Belen rail yard as a locomotive engineer; as the boys came of age or graduated, at least a few began to follow in his footsteps, working in the railroad ice plant, or as machinists and brakemen.

Earl Wilton was the first to set his sights beyond the boundaries of Belen; in 1937, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the Navy. He sent letters home from training camps in San Diego and San Francisco, a specialist school for radio operators, and eventually from a berth on the USS Saratoga, one of the impressive fleet carriers. His travels took him as far away as China, then to a post with the 16th Naval District, headquartered at Cavite in the Philippines.

He would soon have company. In March of 1941, the oldest Gilman boy – Harold Charles – was caught up by draft, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment, and packed off to the Philippines as well. (Interestingly, he also served as a radioman.) Sadie was understandably anxious about the boys, who seemed to be increasingly in harm’s way, and looked forward to Earl’s planned return at the end of his enlistment in November. However, another letter from her sailor son informed her that he was being held in the service due to the developing – and deteriorating – military situation in the East. The Gilmans hoped it would all amount to nothing. Then, a few days after the news of Pearl Harbor shook the nation, Cavite was all but obliterated by a Japanese air assault.

Earl managed to send out one last, brief letter. No need to worry. Will be seeing you. I am OK. Then he and Harold disappeared into the chaotic, doomed defense of the Philippines.

Paul Gilman turned 18 the day before sitting for his enlistment picture.

Back in Belen, Paul quit his job as a machinist’s helper and told his mother he wanted to enlist. Sadie tried to dissuade him, but eventually capitulated. “He said as he left, ‘Mother, it’s our job to go, and you take it on the chin and smile,'” she later remembered. Paul was still a few days shy of eighteen when he enlisted in Albuquerque; he reached the age of majority in his first week at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

Bataan fell on 9 April 1942, while Private Gilman sweated over table service and dirty dishes on mess duty at Base Headquarters, San Diego. On 5 May, he transferred to the post Guard Battalion; the following morning, Corregidor surrendered. Earl and Harold were now prisoners of war, but Paul had no way of knowing this from his post in California. With the bastion of Corregidor neutralized, Samoa seemed a likely target for a Japanese conquest, and Paul was one of dozens of Marines ordered to bolster those defenses. He left the United States in late May aboard the USS Wharton, and after a journey of several days arrived in Samoa where he joined the 8th Marines.

Private Gilman was assigned to the Third Battalion, Company M – a heavy weapons outfit consisting of water-cooled machine guns and 81mm mortars – and probably spent much of his early time on Samoa staring out to sea from a coastal defense position. As days turned into weeks, then months, the threat of invasion became far less imminent and boredom replaced trepidation as the prevailing mood. Training and physical conditioning took up many of the days, especially when the beach defenses were turned over to the Samoan Marines. Many men groused about being forgotten in a backwater to the war – an attitude which only increased when they got wind of the landings on Guadalcanal.

Their turn would come soon enough; in late September 1942, the 8th Marines boarded transports and sailed west towards the Solomon Islands. They had plenty of time to think about what they would face before arriving in early November; once ashore, they had precious little time to think about anything. Exactly what Private Gilman saw and experienced on Guadalcanal isn’t known – he fought, suffered, and survived until February 1943, when his regiment was withdrawn to recuperate in New Zealand.

Life at Camp Paekakariki was a far cry from the primitive conditions on the ‘Canal. There were the inevitable training exercises and conditioning hikes, but there were also liberties in nearby cities, a friendly population, and all the amenities of civilization. On 22 April 1943, Paul Gilman received the welcome news that he had been promoted to Private First Class, and had a portrait taken to send home to his family.

He probably received some much less welcome news around this time, as well. After months of uncertainty, news of those missing in the Philippine Islands was reaching homes across the United States. Harold was okay – alive, at least; his family received a card stating as much. After his capture, he was briefly held at Cabanatuan before being shipped to Mukden in Japanese-occupied China. Earl was not so fortunate: he fell victim to the sailor’s dread disease, scurvy, and died in a prisoner of war camp on 21 November 1942.

The 8th Marines spent the spring and summer of 1943 in New Zealand. In early fall, the intensity of training – especially in amphibious maneuvers involving tracked landing craft – increased markedly. Even the greenest replacement (and there were many in the Second Marine Division) could guess that another operation was approaching. They boarded transports at the end of October, ostensibly for another training exercise, but this time the New Zealand coastline faded behind them for good. They were now a part of Operation GALVANIC; their ultimate destination was a tiny island called Betio in the Tarawa atoll.

Paul Gilman died on the twentieth day of November, 1943.

His battalion was not one of the first ashore. They bobbed offshore in their flat-bottomed landing craft, nauseated by hours in the rough surf, listening to the cacophony of hell that was shredding their regiment’s Second Battalion on Red Beach 3. At 1103, orders came to reinforce 2/8, and the boats started in towards shore – only to slam into Betio’s coral reef.  The coxswains simply dropped their ramps, and 3/8 gamely stepped out and into the water, facing a slog of several hundred yards.

Only about one hundred of the men in their first wave actually made it to the beach. Some stepped into deep holes and drowned, weighed down by their heavy equipment. Others were hit by mortar or machine gun fire from the beach; the Japanese defenders had a field day with the helpless Marines struggling in the surf. An official Marine Corps history of the battle probably understated when it said “the battalion was badly disorganized and shaken by its experience.”

Countless small dramas played out in those few hundred yards, and one apparently involved Paul Gilman. He had reached the beach, or nearly, when one of his buddies went down. Gilman immediately went to help, but was shot down in turn. He lived for only a few minutes, and breathed his last with a smile on his face. Or, at least, so said the buddy who wrote the condolence letter to Sadie Gilman.

Excerpt from the muster roll of 3/8th Marines, November 1943. These were just three of the many M Company Marines killed in action on the first day of Tarawa.
A trench burial on Betio, November 1943.

Paul Gilman lay unburied on the field as his surviving comrades fought to expand their beachhead. Finally, on 22 November, a burial party picked up his body and carried it to the far end of a long trench just inland from the beach. Thirty-eight men, most from the 8th Marines, were already laid out and awaiting burial; once Gilman and 2Lt. George S. Bussa were set down, a brief service was said and the grave quickly covered over.

News of Paul’s death caused only a ripple in the public consciousness; small items appeared in the Carlsbad and El Paso newspaper and, when no further details were released by the Navy department, were quickly forgotten. Not so for the Gilmans, who were now a double Gold Star family – and had yet another boy who was coming of age. Young William Gilman was finishing his studies at Belen High School, working at the railroad, and hoping to become an airplane mechanic. “He saw his last brother leave, studied hard, and took it bravely,” wrote Sadie. When the draft notice inevitably arrived, William “faced his induction like a real man and a real hero,” his mother said. She prayed daily for “his safe and early return.” Fortunately, William wound up in a non-combat role with a quartermaster unit and was posted within the United States.

The war ended in 1945, and the Gilmans finally got a bit of good news. Howard was coming home. He suffered untold hardships as a slave laborer in Mukden, but he had survived. William, too, returned safely with an honorable discharge in 1946. Now, they only had to say goodbye to Earl and Paul. Earl’s remains were exhumed from a POW camp cemetery, identified, and returned to the family; he was buried in Belen’s Terrace Grove Cemetery in November, 1949.

Paul’s return would not be as simple. At around the same time they were making Earl’s funeral arrangements, the Gilmans would have been dealing with the distressing news that their other son’s body could not be found. Soldiers from the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company had searched the island of Betio in 1946; instead of individual graves at “Cemetery 27” – the Navy’s name for the burial trench where Gilman and his comrades lay – they found a large wooden cross, neatly chained off, with a beautifully painted marker naming some of the men buried near the spot. Gilman’s name was among them. The 604th began digging for the bodies on 12 April 1946.

“Work was begun by removing the monument and digging under it to a depth of seven feet,” noted Lt. Ira Eisensmith of the 604th. “After digging up the whole area enclosed by the monument and not finding anything, explorative excavations were started throughout the area. At the same time trenches were started in front of the four large Quonsets in the area around the boat basin, but all this work was in vain…. The area around the barber shop and the area along both sides of the road was dug up but no remains, no
remnants of equipment, or any other debris that would have indicated a burial place were located.” After two weeks of frustration, the GRS men gave up and moved on to another location. They eventually recovered several hundred remains from the island – many of which could not be identified – and the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu spent nearly two years attempting to match names to remains. On 28 February 1949, a board of officers decided that Paul Gilman’s remains were not recoverable, and closed any open investigations into his case.

The location of “Cemetery 27” remained a mystery until an investigative team from non-profit organization History Flight uncovered the spot in 2015. A shipyard had been built over the site; to retrieve some of the remains, archaeologists had to dig underneath the yard’s buildings. That summer, the remains of PFC Paul David Gilman were found right where he was buried in November 1943.

Period records and personal effects – Gilman was buried just as he had died, and some of his belongings were identifiable – suggested his identity, but complete confirmation was required. Upon receipt of the remains from History Flight, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) located David Edington, an Albuquerque resident and son of Elaine (Gilman) Edington, one of Paul’s sisters. Edington’s DNA provided the crucial confirmation, and on 17 May 2018, Paul Gilman was officially accounted for.

His funeral on 26 October 2018 was well attended by family and local veterans’ groups. Paul now rests beside his brother, Earl, in Terrace Grove Cemetery.

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