POW relative’s remains coming home spurs pride in family, service and sacrifice

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District
Published Sept. 27, 2023
Photo of Brooks in his military uniform

Pfc. Thomas Franklin Brooks was taken prisoner in the Philippines during World War II.

Darren Smith is a natural resource specialist with Nolin River Lake.

Darren Smith is a natural resource specialist with Nolin River Lake.

Darren Smith, a natural resource specialist with Nolin River Lake, patrols the lake as part of his duties.

Darren Smith, a natural resource specialist with Nolin River Lake, patrols the lake as part of his duties.

Bee Spring, Kentucky – Darren Smith, a natural resource specialist with Nolin River Lake in Bee Spring, Kentucky, has deep ties to the area around the lake, and those ties are about to become even deeper as the remains of his great uncle, a World War II Veteran, are to be brought home and buried at a local cemetery Oct. 1.

Smith’s uncle, Pfc. Thomas Franklin Brooks, was taken prisoner in the Philippines during World War II. He was injured in fighting but survived eight months before dying of starvation in 1942. Brooks was buried in a communal grave at a POW camp, and after the war, his body was relocated to a cemetery for unknowns in Manila.

Smith said his family learned of plans to bring Brooks home this past summer.

“Members of our family met with Army representatives in August. They described what had happened to Frank in 1942 as they know, where he was initially interred with eight other soldiers, how he was removed from the mass grave in 1946 and how attempts were made to identify those buried in the cemetery at the POW camp,” Smith explained. “Frank’s dental records were a close match but not good enough for Army standards. DNA was collected from his last living sister, Eula Thompson, in 2014. She died the following year, 2015. DNA was also collected from a great-niece, a great-great-niece, a nephew and a great-nephew. In 2018, researchers got permission to remove several of the unknown soldier remains in the Philippines to attempt to identify them through DNA. COVID paused the program in 2020. But a 100% DNA match was found with Frank and Eula in June 2023.”

Smith said he was always inspired by stories of his great uncle’s sacrifice as well as those of other Veterans in his family.

“Frank’s brothers also served in WWII - Hubert served in the Navy, Easol was Special Forces, Almon was in the Big Red 1 and Ralph – I can’t remember who he served with. All these men spoke of their brother with me on various occasions. These men were bigger than life to me,” he shared. “They didn’t share great details about their service, but they spoke of their brother on many occasions. As a child, and even now, I feel as if I knew Frank even though I wasn’t born until 30 years after his death.”

“As a kid attending church and homecomings at Hill Grove Missionary Baptist Church, it was with pride many times that I pointed out the grave marker for Frank’s grave and told the other kids what I knew about him,” Smith added. “His grave looked different from other graves in the cemetery, it was short. The headstone and footstone were only two or three feet apart. Almon, later in life, placed bronze plaques on all the veterans' graves in much of Edmonson County, including his brother Frank’s.”

Family stories about the brothers’ service helped inspire Smith to serve others in his own way.

“The sacrifices they made were great, but those who didn’t come home made a sacrifice most can’t understand. I try to remind myself of that from time to time. Frank died at 23 years old. I wasted much of my 20-somethings chasing things of the world. Frank never had that opportunity,” he said. “When I think of this, I remind myself not to waste the rest of my life, do something meaningful, help others, serve where able to.”

“I have served on the local volunteer fire department as a fireman and EMT. I work hard in my church to help where needed. I assist neighbors I find are in need.,” Smith said. “In my current job, I help the public to ensure they get to enjoy their weekend activities. I’m sure growing up with Uncle Frank’s stories always in the background have affected the decisions I have made in some way.”

Smith said his remaining family is humbled and proud to have “Uncle Frank” back home where he belongs.

“We are going to be happy to have him home. He will be buried beside his mother, in the spot his family always intended. It will be pretty emotional as well,” Smith said. “All of us have heard stories of Frank, so much so, it is as if we actually knew him. This will be his final chapter and we, as a family, are proud to be a part of it.”

“We all wish his brothers and sisters could have seen this day. We always thought there would be a chance, but as time passed you just thought there would be no way. The amazing work these men and women are doing to help families like mine bring their relatives home just blows my mind,” he said.

Smith said the community support for his uncle being brought home and for his family has been overwhelming.

“It has really surprised the family how much attention this has received – we’re amazed. To us, Frank is a family hero who died in the Philippines serving his country. We never thought the community, area, or state was paying that much attention to this. It has been truly amazing to see all the new reports that have been reported on Frank and his returning home,” he said. “I’m not much about social media, but it has been a true blessing to see some of the responses from around the state, country, and even internationally about this event. There is good in the world, you don’t have to look hard to find it. Frank’s story is sad, but he is coming home. That’s positive. His brothers and sisters are already gone, but his family will stand in solidarity and pride on this day to celebrate one of our own.”

Brooks’ burial with full military honors will take place Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. at Hill Grove Missionary Baptist Cemetery, 1839 Dickeys Mill Road, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and is open to the public.