In a story straight out of “CSI,” U.S. Naval Academy tour guide, Drew Dowling, and his wife Linda witnessed the closing of a 75 year-old cold case when Linda’s uncle William Brooks was finally identified after being unaccounted for since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Getting the News
Linda, who worked for 30 years at the NSA as a Russian Linguist/Analyst/Manager, describes it this way: “In the fall of 2021 I heard a knock at my front door. Imagine my surprise to see a uniformed Marine standing there. He informed me that the remains of my late uncle, who had perished on USS Oklahoma on December 7, 1941, had been identified. I guess I was in shock for a few minutes. My mind flashed back to a picture of William that my dad always kept hanging in his bedroom as I was growing up. He was a handsome 19-year old with similar features to my dad.” While she never knew him, Brooks’ memory was preserved in that photo.
A Young Life Lost
Seaman First Class William Brooks, U.S. Navy, was born on July 19, 1922, to William and Lillian Brooks in the small town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17, and was sent to Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois. Dowling says, “My dad rarely spoke of William, I could tell it was a painful loss for him. I know William was just shy of his 18th birthday, so his mom had to sign the papers for him to join.” He was assigned to USS Oklahoma, a battleship that was located at Fort Island, Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, Brooks was on the battleship when the Japanese Navy attacked the base. His ship took on a number of torpedoes and capsized, killing all 429 servicemen aboard the vessel.
Keeping Up with the Remains
World War II had started and it was difficult to retrieve the remains of so many servicemen who had lost their lives in that attack. Slowly, the U.S. Navy began to pick up the pieces, identifying men lost from all over the country, men who were barely men at all—many just having passed their 18th birthday. From December 1941 through June 1944, Navy personnel worked hard to recover the remains of the crew and inter them. For the remains that were not immediately identifiable, they found their resting place at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu, Hawaii (NMCP).
A Second Look
In 1947, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) needed to recover and identify fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, so they disinterred the remains. At that time, they identified just 35 men from USS Oklahoma. The rest were reburied by the AGRS, and a military board classified those remains that were not identified as “non-recoverable” in October 1949. Brooks was categorized as this. He and his fellow Navy seamen remained there until 2015, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) received permission to exhume the unidentified remains from USS Oklahoma. There was new forensic technology that could assist with matching these remains using dental, anthropological and DNA analysis.
A Forensic Breakthrough
DPAA employees and cemetery officials worked from June to November 2015, taking on the gargantuan task of identifying so many remains all these years later. They exhumed the remaining caskets associated with USS Oklahoma and moved the remains to DPAA laboratories, where laboratory analysis and the body of circumstantial evidence collected proved that one set belonged to SEA1 William Brooks. It happened on May 19, 2021. Dowling says, “Navy personnel did an amazing job of compiling an entire 100 page document of every detail, including forensic reports from their lab in Nebraska.” As of September 2021, 346 of the 394 remaining sailors and marines had been identified and buried under their names—an incredible feat.
Finally at Rest
The family chose to bury him in nearby Glen Burnie, Maryland. Dowling explains, “I had initially thought that I would have him laid to rest with his crew members in Hawaii, but I was told that he was still in the lab in Nebraska. I said ‘Let’s bring him home.’ Although my uncle grew up in Tennessee, I don’t believe there are any living relatives there now. My dad would have been the closest relative and since my dad’s buried here, we decided the brothers should be together at long last.” Brooks was laid to rest next to his brother, Estle “Bud” Powers, who passed away on February 3, 2008.
It was almost 100 years from the date of his birth that Seaman First Class William Brooks received a graveside burial with full military honors at Glen Haven Memorial Park Cemetery in Glen Burnie, Maryland, on July 16, 2022. His name, listed on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, will have a rosette to note that he is accounted for. Brooks was memorialized with a beautiful obituary. Although he never met most of the people there to honor his life, his legacy lives on in their stories. Singleton Funeral Home, memorialized the WWII veteran with a beautiful obituary. Although he never met most of the people there to honor his life, his legacy lives on in their stories.
A Touching Tribute
Dowling says, “One final note: a sailor stationed at the USNA came up to me at the funeral home, removed his Surface Warfare pin and presented it to me. I became very emotional and said ‘I can’t take your pin.’ He said, ‘No, I want you to have it. It is the pin your uncle would have worn.’ It gives me chills to think about how thoughtful that small token was and how much it means for me to have it.” This story is especially poignant because Dowling found a document notifying her uncle to apply to the USNA the following spring. “Unfortunately, he never lived to fulfill that dream,” she says.
Giving his pin was such an amazing gesture for an amazing man. Seaman Brooks’ life might have been short but it was incredibly meaningful. We salute all of the women and men who serve our country in every capacity. Their sacrifices are never forgotten, and their stories will live in our hearts.
You can find more information about the Defense Department's mission to account for Americans who went missing in the line of service here. In the meantime, please support the midshipmen who prepare to defend our country’s freedoms every day. Come visit the Yard, where 100% of profits go right to the Brigade. We honor all service people, now and forever.
April 1938 photo of the USS Oklahoma.