- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

CLAYTON, N.J. (AP) - Gene Costill has a lot to be proud of.

Today, his 90th birthday, was named “Gene Costill Day” by borough officials to thank him for his service to his hometown. The former mayor of Clayton served five terms in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in addition to two terms on borough council and a stint as a county freeholder. His grandfather, Elwood Costill, who was wounded in the Civil War, was one of Clayton’s founders. Elwood would later serve as the second mayor in the borough’s history.

“I hope I did good,” he said of his civil service. “I tried hard. The people of Clayton gave me opportunities that few get to enjoy.”

Gene Costill Day also celebrates the ex-mayor’s military service. He’s a World War II veteran, having joined the Coast Guard at 17. Gene spent his war braving storms and submarines in the North Atlantic, guarding American convoys from German U-boats.

With several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, an outside observer might think Gene was ready to take it easy. But at 90, he has one more mission: to get his brother’s remains, which now lie in Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, back home for burial in Clayton.

“The reason it’s urgent now is because I’ve got precious few years left,” he said.

Gene still remembers the day the Western Union man came to his family’s house on Pearl Street. His brother Harold, known to friends and family as Brud, had been on the USS West Virginia when it sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Brud was missing in action at 18 years old, just a few months after he first joined the service. He has been listed as missing ever since.

“I don’t think my mother ever lived another day after that, really,” Gene said. “She was convinced he was off the ship, lost somewhere, and that one day he’d walk through that door. She waited for the rest of her life.”

Brud was an animal lover and avid outdoorsman. He spent his teenage years in the Great Depression hunting deer, trapping muskrat and fishing in Gloucester County’s streams and ponds. He even raised his own hunting dogs with instruction from an uncle. His parents never completely got over the loss.

“My grandparents really beat themselves up over it,” said Karen Watson, Gene’s daughter. “Growing up, our parents made Brud real to us kids with stories. Each of us knows him as well as if we’d met him. And now, we’ve got kids that are older than he was. He was just a boy. He needs to come home.”

But even as households around America grieved, the war raged on. The Costill family, along with the West Virginia, returned to the fight. Gene shipped out just after D-Day, and his brother Robert Costill - who would later become superintendent of the Kingsway Regional school district - fought in both the European and Pacific theaters. The West Virginia, meanwhile, was salvaged in the spring of 1942. The ship would later be part of the fight for both Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

This past November, Costill attended a conference put together by the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which formed in early 2015 to consolidate several government agencies responsible for tracking and identifying the bodies of those who never made it back from combat. There, he was urged to contact his local representatives to champion his cause, and to bring public attention to the matter in New Jersey.

“If technology allows - and I believe it will - I’d like to see this sailor come home,” said Tom Bianco, Clayton’s current mayor. Bianco is helping the Costills garner publicity for their cause. “This is his hometown. Let’s bring him back.”

A spokeswoman with the Department of Defense told NJ Advance Media that putting names to unidentified remains is a lengthy process that mostly occurs on a case-by-case basis. Some projects involve in-depth investigation, including interviews of local people who lived near where the fighting took place and expert research. But the Costill family is armed with an unusual amount of evidence.

Of the dozens of remains that were removed from the West Virginia in 1942, only two of those still unidentified are believed to be the bodies of teenagers. One of those sailors was found wearing the same watch that Brud wore in photographs taken during his service, and had several physical characteristics that sounded like Brud - tall, but not fully grown, with feet that were small for his height.

That sailor is now buried under a tombstone that reads simply “Unknown, USS West Virginia, Pearl Harbor. Dec. 7, 1941.” He lies in good company, surrounded by his comrades. The Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl Cemetery, is the final resting place of many unknown Americans. But if Gene and his family get their way, Brud will come home for burial in Clayton’s Cedar Green Cemetery. There, he’ll be interred alongside his grandfather in the Costill family plot.

Gene’s sister Joan donated DNA 15 years ago in hopes of securing a possible match, but the process stalled before a shovel even touched the ground. Gene has also donated his own DNA for testing, but Joan will never see the progress her family has made. She died last year at 84, after spending more than 20 years in communication with the federal government, looking for Brud.

“My Aunt Joan did a tremendous amount of work,” said Watson. “We’re not going to let it drop. We’re all on board, and we’re going to get him home.”

The family has vowed to continue their efforts even if Gene does not live to see Brud return.

“But we’ve been trying to do this for years,” Watson said. “And there comes a point where you feel like you’re spinning your wheels.”

With the recent identification of some of the missing sailors from the USS Oklahoma, however, there has been a renewed public interest in identifying those lost in the Pacific.

The office of U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has gotten involved, advocating for the disinterment of the grave believed to be Brud’s. A spokesman there said that LoBiondo has pushed to bring missing servicemen’s remains home before, including one soldier who was killed in North Africa.

“I’m the last one,” Gene said. His three brothers and sister are all gone now. “I want to see if, during my lifetime, I can bring him home.”

Gene had gotten dozens of photos out for his interview. Most of them were from his time as mayor. One was of his grandfather, who now lies in Cedar Green. And several more showed the face of a smiling young man - just a boy, really - who sleeps, nameless for now, thousands of miles from home.

___

Information from: NJ Advance Media.

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