With the United States on the brink of entering World War II, Harold Kendall Costill and his childhood friend hitchhiked to Philadelphia and enlisted in the Navy in 1940.
A year later, Costill, 18, was among more than 100 sailors killed aboard the Battleship USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was listed as missing in action for nearly 80 years.
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Relatives refused to give up hope that Costill, the second son in a close-knit family, would be identified. A breakthrough came this past April that Fireman Third Class Harold K. Costill was accounted for and was coming home.
Hundreds of people from around the country gathered Saturday in Clayton to say a final farewell to a native son who was never forgotten by his hometown. A banner in his honor stretched across Delsea Drive, the main thoroughfare in the Gloucester County community of about 8,000. There were lawn signs and American flags.
”He was one of the greatest guys I ever knew,” said his only surviving sibling, Gene Costill, 93, Clayton’s former mayor. “He was fantastic.”
Military officials told him his brother likely died instantly from a head injury when the West Virginia was hit with aerial bombs and torpedoes. Harold Costill was in an engine room in the bottom of the ship at the time of the attack.
The battleship sank to the bottom of the harbor but did not capsize. The remains of Costill and 65 other sailors were recovered a year later when the ship was raised. The remains that could not be identified, including Costill’s. were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl.
For years, family members conducted research on the casualties and pressed the military to try to identify Costill’s remains. His sister, Joan Costill Burke, who was 10 when he died, sent in DNA samples, along with Gene.
Then came an announcement from the military in 2017 that it would exhume remains from the Punchbowl and disinter 35 caskets containing remains from the West Virginia. After Joan died in 2015, her daughter, Nancy Eckler, took up the family’s quest.
“It was her mission. It was her passion,” said Eckler, 62, of Williamstown. “She mourned him her entire life.”
Eckler said her mother would get sad every year on Pearl Harbor Day. Christmas decorations could not be put up until after Dec. 7, she said. The grief eased slightly when Eckler’s granddaughter, Kendall (named after her great-uncle), was born on Dec. 7, 2007.
“Finally, something great happened on this day,” her mother said.
So far, the military has identified four of the sailors among the “unknowns" of the West Virginia, said Cmdr. Daniel Colon, of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. There are still 21 crewmen missing from the ship, he said.
”We’re constantly trying to find ways to identify the unaccounted,” Colon said. The military estimates there are 72,000 servicemen missing from World War II and believes roughly 30,000 may eventually be identified.
Scientists used dental and anthropological analysis, circumstantial and material evidence, and DNA to positively identify Costill’s remains. A rosette was placed next to his name on the Punchbowl’s Walls of the Missing, indicating he has been identified.
It took months of planning by the family to bring Costill’s remains home. The family invited the public to attend his funeral. Eckler, a legal secretary, made blue forget-me-not corsages that relatives wore Saturday. Relatives came from around the country, with more than 80 attending a family reunion dinner.
The remains were flown from Hawaii to Philadelphia on Friday night with an honor guard. Eckler’s son, Maj. Joseph A. Mucci of the Maryland Army National Guard, traveled to Pearl Harbor and escorted his great-uncle’s body home.
”It’s a great sense of finality, being able to bring him home after so long,” said Mucci, 37. “I just wish it had been a little bit sooner.”
From Philadelphia International Airport, the funeral procession made the last leg of its journey with an escort by Clayton police. About 100 motorcycle riders, members of veterans groups, followed the family’s limousine bus.
Shortly after nightfall, the procession arrived at a funeral home in Clayton. About 200 people lined the streets. A huge flag hung from two fire truck ladders. Patriotic music boomed from a speaker. Signs read: “Finally Home.“
During a nearly two-hour service Saturday at the Performing Arts Center at Clayton High School, there were tears, laughter, and poignant remembrances. Costill’s flag-draped casket sat on the stage bookended by floral arrangements. A soloist sang “Bring Him Home.”
Costill was affectionately known as “Brud,” the childhood nickname he was given because he couldn’t pronounce “brother.” Born on June 1, 1923, he grew up in a working-class family with four brothers and a sister.
”We were dirt poor, but we didn’t know it,” Gene Costill said. “We had great times.”
Thelbert “Puggy” Snyder recalled climbing apple trees daily with Harold, who loved the outdoors, hunting, and driving his 1931 Ford with his dog Punk. Costill and Snyder were inseparable, so it was fitting that the Class of 1940 graduates enlisted together without telling their parents, he said. Snyder, 96, served in the South Pacific.
”I don’t know how Brud died, but what I do know, he died bravely,” Snyder said in his tribute. “He was a very, very special friend.”
In his last letter to his sister, dated Dec. 3, 1941, Costill said he didn’t “regret a single day” of serving in the Navy. He was 17 when he enlisted.
”If I had it to do over I would join up in a second," he wrote. "Even though I have been away from home so long, I have been to places and seen things that I never would have seen.”
Costill was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously. His family was presented Saturday with the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal and a state POW-MIA Medal.
A bagpipe and drum ensemble played “Anchors Aweigh” as sailors carried the casket from the church. Mourners walked about a quarter mile to a cemetery behind the school to the Costill family plot.
After a gun salute, a bugler sounded Taps and sailors in crisp white uniforms meticulously folded the American flag on the casket, then presented it to Gene, who clutched it to his chest and saluted.
Mourners were given a memory card that read:
”Greater love has no man than this, That a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13