WWI soldier buried at Arlington, 91 years after he died during battle in France

By Michael E. Ruane and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; B01

On June 8, 1921, an Army captain wrote Mrs. Nora Grady of New York to report that officials had been unable to find the body of her brother, Thomas D. Costello, who had been killed in France during the late war.

The captain reassured Mrs. Grady that the search would continue. But "some time may yet elapse before definitive information can be given in this case."

On Monday, 89 years later -- and 91 years after Costello, a private in the 60th Infantry Regiment, was killed by German artillery in a patch of woods called the Bois de Bonvaux -- his remains were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

He was buried at 11 a.m. on a hill beneath a freshly trimmed swamp oak, not far from his World War I commander, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who had led the "doughboys" to Europe in 1917.

A warm breeze rustled the leaves as a bugler played taps and a French Army colonel came by to pay his respects. "I wanted to show the gratitude of my country," said Col. Brice Houdet.

Costello's fairly complete skeleton was discovered by relic hunters in eastern France in 2006, along with the remains of several other soldiers, and artifacts such as a blue-beaded rosary, a smashed French coin, a pocketknife, toothbrushes and the remnants of boots and uniforms.

He was identified after an investigation by the Defense Department's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command that matched, among other things, dental records and evidence of the fatal head wound Costello had suffered.

Pentagon officials said it was one of only a handful of instances in recent years in which the remains of a World War I casualty were discovered and identified.

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Also present Monday was a Costello family descendant, Michael J. Frisbie, 43, a truck driver from Stockton Springs, Maine, who flew down for the funeral with his wife, Leanne, and daughter, Brittani. They sat in the green-covered graveside chairs reserved for family members.

Frisbie, who had no idea he was a relative until he was contacted about two years ago by a Pentagon genealogist, said he believes that Costello was his great-great uncle. But the distance of the connection "doesn't matter," Frisbie said. "He's a fallen soldier, and if I can honor him, that's great."

The story begins on the evening of Sept. 16, 1918, as Costello's regiment was digging in after an advance under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, according to the Pentagon investigation and records in the National Archives.

The attack was part of the huge American-led offensive around Saint-Mihiel, France, that came as allied forces battered the German army in the closing months of the war.

As the men of Costello's Company H dug in about 7:30 p.m., an artillery shell struck a group of them. Costello, 26, was hit in the head by a shell fragment. A hole in his skull and fracture lines characteristic of "high-energy events" were evident when his remains were unearthed, investigators found.

First Sgt. Harold A. Engdahl witnessed Costello's death.

"I picked him up and endeavored to stop the flow of blood," Engdahl reported afterward. "But it was impossible with the means at hand. I tried to get him to speak but he never regained consciousness, and died in a very few minutes."

Costello was one of 42 men in his regiment killed during the six-day offensive, according to a history of the 5th Infantry Division, to which the regiment was attached.

A "Grave Location Blank" in his Archives burial file indicates that he was buried in the woods on Sept. 24, 1918, his grave marked with a cross, which later must have vanished.

Pentagon investigators reported that the remains were found at the edge of a potato field between the Bois de Bonvaux and the Bois de Grande Fontaine, near the town of Jaulny, about 200 miles east of Paris.

Costello, a New York native, stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 139 pounds when he joined the Army in September 1917, according to his file. He was one of three brothers who served during the war, his sister wrote the government later. No information is available on his brothers.

His mother died in 1910, and the file is filled with plaintive postwar correspondence between the government and his sister, mainly over the futile attempts to find his body.

There is little personal information about him, and no photo appears to exist. The correspondence shows that extensive attempts were made to find and identify his remains.

In May 1922, the American Graves Registration Service in Paris ordered a thorough search of the woods and of cemetery records for any sign of Costello's burial site. Nothing was found.

In September 1922, the War Department asked his sister for his dental records, in case his body was found. The Army had noted that he was missing five teeth at the time of his enlistment, but it was now looking for any record of fillings, crowns or bridges. Grady wrote back that she could not remember if he had had any dental work.

In 1924, the War Department tracked down Engdahl in Chicago, but he could supply little information beyond his wartime report.

Official paperwork in the file continues into 1930 and 1931. And in August 1932, someone wrote on a single unadorned sheet of lined paper: "Costello, Thomas D . . . 60th Inf . . . ka 9-16-18 . . . investigation suspended."

Costello's body was discovered by members of Thanks GIs, a French group that seeks to honor the contribution of U.S. soldiers to France in World Wars I and II, according to Elisabeth Gozzo, who heads the organization.

Gozzo said that as soon as the remains were found, she notified a team from the POW/MIA accounting command that by coincidence was working nearby on the wreck of an American tank from World War II.

Investigators came a week later. Using sophisticated equipment and techniques, they uncovered bones and other remains in several days of excavation and took them away for identification, Gozzo said in a telephone interview from her home in nearby Corny-sur-Moselle.

"It is not the first time we've found the remains of soldiers who disappeared," she said. "We hope to find as many as possible, after all they did for us."

Cody reported from Paris.

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