Pvt. Robert H. Brooks was the son of Adeline and Ray Brooks and born on October 8, 1915, in McFarland, Kentucky. He was raised in Sadieville, Kentucky, with his two sisters. As an adult, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he enlisted in the U.S. Army in late 1940. Robert was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he became a member of D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. The reason he joined the company had been a Kentucky National Guard tank company and had only 66 men so the Army was filling out the tank companies with men from the home state of each company.
Basic training for the selectees was rushed and finished in seven weeks. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; week 7 was spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.
All the training was done with the 69th Tank Regiment of the First Armored Division under the supervision of officers and enlisted men from the 192nd. A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterward, they attended 13-week classes at the various schools, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played. It is known he qualified as a half-track and a tank driver. He attended track vehicle maintenance school at Ft. Knox and was assigned to the maintenance section of D Company. He also drove the half-track of Sgt. Morgan French who was in charge of tank maintenance.
The biggest task at Ft. Knox facing the members of the 192nd, was that each company had to get used to each other. During this process of adjustment, the members of the different companies often were involved in fistfights. As time passed, the fights ended as the members of the battalion became friends. Each company was made up of three platoons of thirty men and each company had the same number of tanks assigned to it. The one exception was Headquarters Company which had three assigned tanks. When the battalion arrived at Ft. Knox, it had eight tanks, and the crews were ordered not to abuse them. By this time, the battalion had 16 operational tanks, and the first men from selective service were assigned to the company. On January 10, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the company in March 1941. When the battalion finally received all its tanks, the soldiers were told to “beat the hell out of them.”
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new larger barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
On June 14 and 16, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of HQ Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of HQ Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. Each tank company traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated, and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox through Lebanon, New Haven, and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
From September 1 through 30, the 192nd went on maneuvers in Louisiana. The entire battalion was loaded onto trucks and sent in a convoy to Louisiana while the tanks and wheeled vehicles were sent by train. They had no idea that they had already been selected for overseas duty. During the maneuvers that tanks held defensive positions and usually were held in reserve by the higher headquarters. For the first time, the tanks were used to counter-attack and in support of infantry. Many of the men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.”
During their training at Ft. Knox, the tankers were taught that they should never attack an anti-tank gun head-on. One day during the maneuvers, their commanding general threw away the entire battalion doing just that. After sitting out a period of time, the battalion resumed the maneuvers. At some point, the battalion also went from fighting in the Red Army to fighting for the Blue Army.
The major problem for the tanks was the sandy soil. On several occasions, tanks were parked and the crews walked away from them. When they returned, the tanks had sunk into the sandy soil up to their hauls. To get them out, other tanks were brought in and attempted to pull them out. If that didn’t work, the tankers brought a tank wrecker from Camp Polk to pull the tank out of the ground.
The one good thing that came out of the maneuvers was that the tank crews learned how to move at night. At Ft. Knox this was never done. Without knowing it, the night movements were preparing them for what they would do in the Philippines since most of the battalion’s movements there were made at night. The drivers learned how to drive at night and to take instructions from their tank commanders who had a better view from the turret. A number of motorcycle riders from other tank units were killed because they were riding their bikes without headlights on which meant they could not see obstacles in front of their bikes. When they hit something they fell to the ground and the tanks following them went over them. This happened several times before the motorcycle riders were ordered to turn on their headlights.
One of the major problems was snake bites. It appeared that every other man was bitten at some point by a snake. The platoon commanders carried a snakebit kit that was used to create a vacuum to suck the poison out of the bite. The bites were the result of the nights cooling down and snakes crawling under the soldiers’ bedrolls for warmth while the soldiers were sleeping on them. There was one multicolored snake – about eight inches long – that was beautiful to look at, but if it bit a man he was dead. The good thing was that these snakes would not just strike at the man but only struck if the man forced himself on it. When the soldiers woke up in the morning they would carefully pick up their bedrolls to see if there were any snakes under them. To avoid being bitten, men slept on the two and a half-ton trucks or on or in the tanks. Another trick the soldiers learned was to dig a small trench around their tents and lay rope in the trench. The burs on the rope kept the snakes from entering the tents. The snakes were not a problem if the night was warm. They also had a problem with the wild hogs in the area. In the middle of the night while the men were sleeping in their tents they would suddenly hear hogs squealing. The hogs would run into the tents pushing on them until they took them down and dragged them away.
The food was also not very good since the air was always damp which made it hard to get a fire started. Many of their meals were C ration meals of beans or chili that they choked down. Washing clothes was done when the men had a chance. They did this by finding a creek, looking for alligators, and if there were none, taking a bar of soap and scrubbing whatever they were washing. Clothes were usually washed once a week or once every two weeks.
At the end of the maneuvers, the tankers were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, without being given a reason for being sent there. They had expected to return to Ft. Knox at the end of the maneuvers. On the side of a hill, the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many of the soldiers believed they had figured out that PLUM was an acronym for the Philippines, Luzon, Manila. It was at this time, men 29 years or older were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Those who did were replaced with men from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The reason for this move was because of an event that happened earlier in 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, whose plane was lower than the others, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter. The island was hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. By the time another squadron was sent to the area the next morning, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried soldiers. The company took the southern route along the Gulf Coast through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At Yuma, Arizona the train stopped and the Native Americans entered the train cars and sold beads to the soldiers. The soldiers knocked each other over attempting to buy the beads. After the train pulled out of the station, someone noticed that the genuine Native American beads were made in Japan. When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here than going where you all are going.” It is believed that he and the other men stayed on Angel Island for two days and given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced. The soldiers spent their time putting cosmoline on anything that they thought would rust.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2, and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, the transport, U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, but two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters carrying scrap metal to Japan. When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received dinner. In D Company’s case, they most likely had dinner with the 194th Tank Battalion while the other members of the 192nd pitched ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. D Company moved into barracks with the 194th, and it was at this time the process was begun to transfer D Company to the battalion which had left for the Philippines minus one company that was sent to Alaska. The medical clerk for the 192nd spent weeks organizing records to be handed over to the 194th. The transfer was permanently suspended when the war started.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool,” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The tankers followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX. For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups.
The 192nd had a large number of ham radio operators and within hours of arriving in the Philippines had set up a communications tent. The members of the battalion sent radio messages home saying they had arrived in the Philippines safely. Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews from both battalions were ordered to Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers.
All morning long on December 8, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. The planes were parked in a straight line outside the pilots’ mess hall. At 12:45, two formations of planes approached the airfield from the northwest. Most of the members of D Company had gone to lunch, and one man had been left behind with each tank and half-track. Robert was with two of the mechanics from maintenance when the first bombs began to fall.
According to Morgan French, Robert was running to his half-track. It was the belief of the other members of the company that Robert was attempting to get to his half-track so he could man the .50 caliber machine gun on it. As he ran, a bomb, which was a dud, hit Robert and split him in two. He was killed instantly. Ralph Stine, who was looking through the viewing slot in his tank, watched the entire event. Stine stated that he knew the bomb was a dud because it landed twenty feet from his tank. When Robert was found by the other members of his company, half his head and part of his shoulder were missing. Robert Brooks was the first American tank battalion member to be killed in World War II.
When the news of the death of Pvt. Robert H. Brooks reached Fort Knox, the Commanding General, Jacob Devers, ordered that the main parade ground at the base from that day on be named after him. One of General Dever’s subordinates called the Farmer’s Deposit Bank in Sadieville, Kentucky, attempting to reach Robert’s parents. As it turned out, the bank had the only phone in the town. W. T. Warring at the bank answered the phone and was asked by the aide if he would ask Robert’s parents if they could be present at the dedication ceremony. The aide asked Mr. Warring if he could tell him anything about Robert’s parents. Mr. Warring said, ” His parents are tenant farmers, ordinary Black people; maybe you could contact them and see if they could come.” The general’s representative hung up the phone and immediately called back. He said to Mr. Warring, “Did you say they were Black?” Warring responded, “Yes, his mother and father are very dark.” The aide felt that this might change the situation. When he reported back to General Devers, the general said, “It does not matter whether or not Robert was Black, what mattered was that he had given his life for his country.”
General Devers had this letter sent to the parents of Pvt. Robert H. Brooks.
Mr. and Mrs. Roy Brooks
“My Dear Mr. and Mrs. Brooks:
“It is with the deepest regret that I have learned of the death of your son, Robert, who gave his life in the defense of his country, December 8, 1941, in a battle near Fort Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands.
“With appreciation of your suffering, my sincere sympathy goes out to you.
“Robert was the first battle casualty of the Armored Force, and because of this, and because of his excellent record, I have directed that the main parade ground at Fort Knox be named Brooks Field in honor of your son.
“The dedication of Brooks Field will take place at 11:00, Tuesday morning, December 23, and I hope that you may attend this ceremony.
“Most sincerely yours
Jacob L. Devers
Major General, U.S. Army
Chief of Armored Forces”
The ceremony dedicating the parade ground in honor of Robert Brooks was held with Robert’s parents present on December 23 at 11:00 A.M. All commanding officers and their staffs took their places near the flagpole. In addition, nine generals were present. A platoon of dismounted infantry from the 1st Armored Division formed in a double rank facing the flagpole. The band of the 5th Armored Division played music, and General Devers delivered his address.
“On December 8, the first day that America entered the war, Pvt. Robert H. Brooks died on the battlefield near Fort Stotsenburg, in the Philippine Islands. For him, the first soldier of the Armored Force to be killed in action, this parade ground, with its flag now at half-mast, will be named Brooks Field.”
During the dedication, General Devers said in his dedication speech, “Reveille has sounded for living Americans. In the factories and farms — in the mines and on the railroads — in the home and in the offices all answering the call. Yet, none can make a greater sacrifice for the nation than the soldier who gives his life. For Robert Brooks the bugle will sound taps
“In death, there is no grade or rank. And in this greatest democracy the world has ever known, neither riches nor poverty, neither creed nor race, draws a line of demarcation in this hour of national crisis.”
Chaplain W. D. Cleary said:
“Oh, Mighty and Eternal God, be pleased to bless this gathering … grant that the dedication of this field may include the dedication of our lives to the defense of the principles, ideals and institutions for which he gave his life … to his bereaved parents … strength and courage to bear with patience and Christian resignation the heavy cross Thou has laid upon them …
“To the immortal soul of Robert H. Brooks, grant refreshment, light and peace in Thy heavenly kingdom, through the infinite merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The prayer was followed by three volleys from rifles and then Taps.
After the war, Robert Brooks’ remains were moved to the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila, where he still lies with the other members of his battalion. He was posthumously promoted to Private First Class.