‘The connection to home is powerful’: Nephew shares journey to bring back POW uncle

Published 3:45 pm Monday, September 18, 2023

By Jake Moore, Bowling Green Daily News

Maurita Miller will tell you you’d have to go “long and far” to find another place that loves their veterans as much as Edmonson County.

A visit to the Edmonson County Hall of Honor will easily back up her claim. The entryway of the county courthouse has been converted into a living record of military service, boasting more than 1,200 photos of local veterans categorized by each U.S. war all the way back to 1812.

Miller has lovingly curated the mini-museum for over a decade, working diligently to preserve the stories of the county’s native sons.

“I’ve just developed a closeness to these people,” she said. “It’s just very rewarding to just pass down things that maybe their great-grandchildren would never even hear about.”

Miller is about to have some rearranging to do.

A replica of U.S. Army Pfc. Thomas “Frank” Brooks’ WWII uniform will soon adorn the courthouse wall, marking the Edmonson County native’s homecoming after more than 80 years since he died as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines.

Letters to home indicate that Brooks, raised near Mammoth Cave National Park, was a stoic and family-centered young man.

He joined the military in 1941 and was stationed at Fort Knox as a member of the Kentucky Army National Guard 38th Tank Unit, nicknamed the “Harrodsburg Tankers” because of its makeup of Kentucky natives.

His unit, redesignated as Company D of the 192nd Light Tank Battalion, endured heavy fighting against the Japanese after they arrived on Filipino shores hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Brooks and his men fought – without resupply or reinforcement – in the Battle of Bataan from January to April 1942. The allied forces were ultimately ordered to surrender, and those who could not escape were forced on the bloody “Bataan Death March” to the Cabanatuan POW camp.

Brooks was transferred there in May and survived until Dec. 10, when he passed away at the age of 23. He was buried in a common grave.

The young tanker was finally accounted for this June after DNA and anthropological analysis of his remains turned up a match. He is to be laid to rest next to his parents in the Hill Grove Missionary Baptist Cemetery on Oct. 1.

That identification might not have happened if one of Brooks’ great-nephews hadn’t been so determined to bring “Uncle Frank” back.

Gerald Carroll grew up hearing fragments of his great-uncle’s story, with different relatives all having their own idea of what had happened to him during the war.

While Brooks might have been missing from family reunions, his story and the unanswered questions regarding his whereabouts were kept alive.

“You could tell that it impacted them greatly,” Carroll said. “He was always mentioned.”

Carroll finally got a lead to his relative when Brooks’ individual deceased personnel file was declassified in 2010.

“That’s what really put me on the road,” Carroll said. “That’s when I found out that he was actually in a grave and they knew where he was at.”

Brooks’s sister, Eula Thompson, was still alive then. She gave Carroll her blessing to pursue her brother’s remains, a wish the family had wanted fulfilled for decades.

Brooks’ oldest sister, Cardelia Sanders, had written a letter to the quartermaster general in 1948 to plead for her brother’s remains to be returned to Edmonson County “as mother wished it to be done.”

“Between that letter and my Aunt Eula, I felt OK to pursue it,” Carroll said.

Carroll submitted Thompson’s DNA to aid in identification in 2014 and became the family’s primary contact point to the Army.

He received a very important voicemail in June.

“I called the guy back and he just flatly said, ‘I have good news about your uncle,’ ” Carroll said.

More than 80 years after his passing, Brooks had been found.

“It took me a couple minutes to recover myself,” Carroll said, tearing up as he remembered the moment. “I didn’t know if it would be this year or seven years from now. I didn’t know how long it would take.”

He said that four nieces and nephews had also submitted their DNA, but if it weren’t for Thompson the process “would not have been successful.”

Thompson passed away before she could hear the news, but Carroll was able to leave her with the knowledge that her brother at least had a grave.

From that point on, Carroll began the process of informing Brooks’ living relatives about the discovery. He told County Judge-Executive Scott Lindsey that the return was “going to be an event for Edmonson County.”

“The feeling now is that Edmonson County is incredibly excited,” Carroll said. “The family itself is 37 living nieces and nephews, probably 200-plus great-nieces and nephews and they all want to be a part of this.”

Carroll served in the Army for 38 years, earning the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 5. He spent time in the 101st Airborne Division and participated in combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he knew what it was like to miss home, a yearning his great uncle must have felt during his time as a POW.

“Any soldier, whether you serve in combat or not, will tell you the connection to home is powerful,” Carroll said. “For anybody who’s ever served, probably your greatest fear that you never let come forward is ‘God, don’t leave me over here.’

“Those eight months (in Cabanatuan) had to have been just plain torture to him, but you have to believe that when he was lucid, his conscious thoughts were of home and of family.”

That shared feeling was the driving force behind Carroll’s efforts to retrieve his relative.

Now, thanks to the work of a descendant he never met, Brooks is finally coming back to where he belongs.