Brooks was first Tecumseh resident to enlist in WWI, served on S.S. Kentuckian


Ralph W. Brooks (top right) is pictured with fellow servicemen serving in World War I. Submitted photo.

After the United States declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917, young American men quickly enlisted in the Armed Forces. Ralph William Brooks was the first Tecumseh resident to enlist in World War I, according to his niece, Jean Smith.

Smith, 95, of Tecumseh, has inherited all Brooks’ historical memorabilia. She remembers her uncle coming to Tecumseh once a year from his home in Yonkers, N.Y., to visit with his family that were still living in Tecumseh.

“He was my favorite uncle,” said Smith.

Brooks was 18 when he traveled to Adrian to enlist in the Navy. Basic training was done at the Great Lakes Navy Academy in Chicago, Ill.

After he finished his training, Brooks attended a culinary school at the U.S. Naval Detachment’s Dunwoody Industrial Institute in Minneapolis, Minn. He trained to be a baker, and then was assigned to the S.S. Kentuckian traveling to Europe.

Built in 1910 by Maryland Steel Company, Sparrows Point, Md., the Navy took ownership of the S.S. Kentuckian on December 16, 1918, and commissioned the ship on January 28, 1919 under the command of Lt. Commander Carrol E. Higgans, NAR.

Before being decommissioned on September 15, 1919, the S.S. Kentuckian transported thousands of WWI veterans from France to New York. Brooks made 13 trips across the Atlantic Ocean on the S.S. Kentuckian, baking bread for the returning troops until the Kentuckian was decommissioned and returned to her owners.

Smith has her uncle’s “Recruits Handy Book” distributed by the United States Navy in 1917. It provides a pay scale for chief petty officers, petty officers first class and second class, seamen, the commissary branch and the messman branch.

The highest pay rate was $77 a month, paid to the Chief Machinists’ Mates and the Chief Commissary Stewards. The lowest paid men were the landsmen, who made $17.60 a month.

Brooks likely made $38.50 or $49.50 a month as a baker, either first class or second class.

Instructions are given, complete with illustrations, for the proper way to salute with both the hand and a rifle. Detailed instructions are also given for the proper way to pack a bag and how to care for their hammocks.

According to the handbook, “Bags, hammocks and clothes unclaimed as well as the clothes found adrift at any time, are to be put in the lucky bag. The owners will be placed on the report.”

In addition to diagrams of knots, and a list of questions detailing general seamanship, Navy men needed to know the rigs of sailing vessels, nomenclature of boats, reading a compass, international Morse code and the naval code of signals.

Brooks kept a menu from the seven-course Christmas dinner served at the U.S. Naval Detachment, Dunwoody Industrial Institute in Minneapolis, Minn., in December 1917. The dinner began with oyster cocktail, queen celery, mixed olives, sweet pickles and cream of celery soup.

The main course featured sugar cured ham, stuffed breast of veal, chicken salad on lettuce, roast Minnesota spring turkey stuffed with oyster dressing, and cranberry sauce. The evening finished up with coffee, cigars and cigarettes.

The inside of the menu states, “A real meal for a real man.” Listed on the back of the menu was the names Commanding Officer O.C.F. Dodge, Ensign U.S. Navy (Retired), and Commissary and Supply Officer George W. Ronald, Assistant Paymaster, U.S.N.R.F.

Brooks also kept the typewritten document, “Principles of Bread-Making,” which reads like a science document rather than a cookbook. The yellowed pages include a table of elements with their symbols and atomic weight, as well as drawings of yeast and a microscope.

His recipe for the Navy or Army bread formula called for 150 pounds of flour, 75 or 80 pounds of water, 2.25 pounds of sugar, 2.25 pounds of salt and 1.5 pounds of compressed yeast. The only cooking instructions said the temperature of the dough must be kept at 82 degrees and the dough should “come up full twice, then scale off.”

Smith said, during his service, her uncle fell in love with England. In his memorabilia from the war era, Brooks had a book of black and white drawings of famous London landmarks, entitled “Views of London.”

After returning from the war, Brooks worked for an electrical power company rather than pursue a career in baking. He married, but never had children of his own.

Every year when Brooks returned to Tecumseh to visit his family, he rented a lake house in the Irish Hills for his extended family to vacation with him. He died in 1954 and his body was returned to Tecumseh for burial.

Smith is proud of her uncle’s service, as well as the later service of her brother and cousins. She has shown her support for American servicemen through her lifetime membership in the American Legion Auxiliary.


Tecumseh Herald


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P.O. Box 218
Tecumseh, MI 49286

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