WEST HAVEN >> Kevin Gilbert was just 12 when his oldest brother, James W. Gilbert Jr., was declared missing in action while fighting in Europe.

That was back on Feb. 8, 1946. World War II had just ended.

But James Gilbert never came home. He never returned to West Haven, where he grew up on Kelsey Avenue. He never resumed his life, never got married or had kids, never got to watch his siblings’ children grow up and get married, never went to work at Armstrong Rubber, where his father, James Sr., was an executive and several of his family members worked.

He’s the only known veteran from West Haven to be officially declared missing in action in World War II.

His family, including his youngest brother — now 82 and living in Orange — did their best to live their lives and move on without him.

But his story doesn’t stop there.

Kevin Gilbert was too emotional to speak publicly Wednesday or to stand up in front of a bunch of TV cameras to accept the American flag that U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., presented to the Gilbert family at the West Haven Veterans Museum and Learning Center on behalf of a grateful nation.

He left that to his nephew Terrance Gilbert Jr. of West Haven.

But he shared his feelings afterward.

Because he was so young when his brother went off to war, “I don’t know enough about him, but I think about him all the time,” Kevin Gilbert said. “I’m very proud, very proud” to see the family so honored, “and I’m very proud of my nephew for doing what he did” to arrange it, he said.

The road that led to Terrance Gilbert Jr. — whose late father, Terrance R. Gilbert Sr., also was Kevin Gilbert’s older brother — receiving the flag began when Terrance Jr. started going through old boxes of belongings, including things having to do with his late uncle, after Terrance’s grandparents (Kevin Gilbert’s parents) died.

Terrance Gilbert Jr. — whose father came home the same year his uncle was declared MIA — compiled medals honoring his uncle’s heroic service, as well as one of his military uniforms, which are now on display at the West Haven Veterans Museum, 30 Hood Terrace. The one thing missing from the public exhibit has been an American flag, which the family never received after James Gilbert was declared missing.

The flag that Blumenthal presented to the family as a host of veterans and officials, including Mayor Ed O’Brien and state Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, looked on is certified to have flown over the U.S. Capitol, the senator said.

“We will never know what James Gilbert would have done with his life, just as we will never know what might have been done — families raised, the days unseen, the 4th of July un-celebrated, by the countless men and women who sacrificed their lives during the Second World War,” Blumenthal said.

“But we know for sure that they inspired us — both James and Terrance and the Greatest Generation — inspired us to serve, inspired our sons and daughters,” including “my two sons who have served in the military,” he said. “Their example led us. They led by example. They never asked for medals. ... They did it because they believed in America.

“The heritage and legacy of these great men and women who gave their lives for America — and who then came back, many of them, and built America ... built the interstates, they desegregated the schools, they put a man on the moon, literally,” Blumenthal said. “They gave to America in war and in peace.”

Blumenthal had praise for the city of West Haven, which he said is a community that truly honors and respects veterans.

“I can’t tell you how many veterans ceremonies I have been to in West Haven,” he said. “This community really believes in our veterans, not only on Veterans Day, not only on the 4th of July, but every day of the year.”

Wednesday’s ceremony also honored a living veteran, Korean War veteran Ed Kiczyinski Sr., who Blumenthal and Ferraro presented with South Korea’s Ambassador for Peace Medal for his service during that war.

After receiving the flag, Terrance Gilbert Jr., who volunteers at the museum, thanked the senator and his staff on behalf of his family “for helping honor our family’s heroes.

“After 71 years, this brings final closure to our family,” he said. “This also serves as a symbol for all men and women who have served this great country.”

Gilbert encouraged the public to visit the museum and see how what its staff has built in honor of the nation’s veterans.

After the ceremony, Kevin Gilbert said it felt good to see his uncle recognized.

“You know, I was born in this town. I knew Bill Soderman,” Kevin Gilbert said, referring to West Haven’s only Medal of Honor winner, a bona fide war hero who died in 1980. “I knew Bill Soderman’s mother.”

But in all of his years growing up in West Haven and living in Greater New Haven, Kevin Gilbert doesn’t recall any previous public recognition of the sacrifice that James Gilbert — and his entire family — made, he said.

“I’m terribly happy,” Kevin Gilbert said.