STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — More than 90 years ago, Army Pvt. Thomas D. Costello was killed in combat on one of the bloody World War I battlefields in Northern France.
The 26-year-old soldier, who died of a shrapnel head wound on Sept. 16, 1918, was buried along with two other soldiers in a wooded area nearby.
That unmarked grave is where they remained for decades.
But when a man with a metal detector in 2006 began finding World War I artifacts, Costello’s long journey back to the United States had begun. The artifacts led to the discovery of a gravesite.
U.S. military officials were able to identify the men using dental records, and then genealogists struggled to find surviving relatives.
For Pvt. Costello, his closest living relative is his great-grand nephew Michael Frisbie of Stockton Springs — a man who didn’t even know he had an uncle who had died in the war.
“It was out of the blue,” Leanne Frisbie, Michael’s wife, said Monday afternoon from Arlington, Va. Costello’s remains were reburied with full military honors on Monday in Arlington National Cemetery.
At first, the family thought it was a scam when a military genealogist asked for Frisbie’s family tree in 2006.
“Mike wasn’t too close to his paternal family. It was quite a shocker,” his wife said.
But then they realized that the military’s search effort was no scam.
“My husband was the last living relative,” Leanne Frisbie said. “He was very honored to take the respect of the soldier all upon himself.”
The Frisbies and their daughter, Brittani, traveled to Washington, D.C., over the weekend to attend the reburial ceremony.
Leanne Frisbie said that the family was taken to the cemetery by limousine. Costello’s service and sacrifice were recognized there with a 21-gun salute, a bugler playing taps and the presence of important military personnel, including Brig. Gen. Donald Rutherford and French military attache Col. Brice Houdet, according to a report from CNN.
Costello was buried near other World War I veterans, Leanne Frisbie believes.
“It was very impressive,” she said. “The funeral was just fantastic. We were just blown away.”
About two people are returned to Maine each year for this type of repatriation, although it is unusual to find World War I veterans, said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffry Hanson of the Maine Army National Guard, who served as a military liaison for the Frisbies.
“It doesn’t matter when the soldier died, and it doesn’t matter what service,” Hanson said by phone Monday. “Private Thomas Costello received the proper honors and burial service that he deserves.”
The military does everything it can to identify soldiers and locate their relatives, Hanson said. In the case of Pvt. Costello, it took three years to find the Frisbies and another year to arrange the funeral.
“It’s just paying honors and respects to a man who gave his life to this great country that we live in,” Hanson said.
According to the CNN report, scientists from the POW-MIA command laboratory used circumstantial evidence and other forensic identification tools along with dental comparisons to identify the remains of the soldiers found in France.
This work is done by the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office.
Identification of World War I soldiers is not common, Larry Greer, the public affairs director for the personnel office, told CNN. Only five U.S. soldiers from that war have been identified since 2006 — leaving more than 3,000 U.S. troops still missing and unaccounted for from that war.
More than 80,000 military personnel are still missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Greer told CNN. The defense department spends about $105 million annually to recover the missing soldiers, Greer said.
The military documents its identification efforts for each soldier in a book given to family members, which has helped the Frisbies learn some things about Costello, Leanne Frisbie said Monday.
“Where they found him, what they went through to get the records, what was found with him, you name it,” she said. “What exactly the military went through — it makes you speechless, actually.”
They learned that early efforts made by military officials and Costello’s sister to find the doughboy and bring him home were unsuccessful in part because their records indicated he was buried about 20 miles away from his actual grave site.
“Now we’re thinking we’d really like to find out more about him,” Leanne Frisbie said.
The whole experience has made her even more proud — and more scared — of her own daughter’s military service, she said. University of Maine student Brittani Frisbie, 21, is a member of the 101st Air Refueling Wing of the Maine Air National Guard.
“I’m very proud of her for being in the armed forces,” she said. “On the other hand, I was thinking about how casualties can happen in the blink of an eye.”
Costello’s funeral was one of 31 held at Arlington on Monday. Another was for U.S. Navy Ensign Robert Langwell of Columbus, Ind., who would have been destined for a dark, watery grave if not for the kindness of a fisherman in South Korea who pulled his body from the ocean some 60 years ago.
Langwell died aboard the USS Magpie when the ship hit a mine and exploded off the coast of South Korea on Oct. 1, 1950, months after the start of the Korean War. Twelve soldiers survived; Langwell was one of 20 lost at sea. He was 26.
Days later, his body got tangled in the fisherman’s net and was pulled from the sea. Local residents buried him in a shallow grave in Chuksan-ri, South Korea, where he remained for decades.
Two years ago, the fisherman’s tip led South Korean officials to search for Langwell’s body. In April of last year, they recovered his skeletal remains and an old identification card from a shallow grave three miles from where the ship sank.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.