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A N.J. man was a decorated African American in the Marines. His trunk ended up in an estate sale in Conn.

Montford Point Marines (U.S. Mint/Released)

How did a trunk that once belonged to a decorated Montford Point Marine from New Jersey who fought at Iwo Jima end up in Connecticut? The mystery has the family of Gilmon D. Brooks scratching their heads.

Ellanora Lerner, 17, of New London, Conn., knows little about the trunk except that an aunt purchased it several years ago at an estate sale in Connecticut and gave it to her about a year ago.

Lerner said she has been storing papers in the trunk in her bedroom. She was going to discard it, but after researching Brooks’ background, she decided to track down his family. Now she wants to return it to them.

“I thought it was a cool piece of history,” said Lerner, a high school senior.

Brooks made history as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the all-black unit that integrated the Marine Corps after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the armed forces in 1941 to recruit African Americans. He served in three wars and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

“A piece of gear that belonged to him is significant,” said Joseph Geeter III, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Montford Point Marines Association. Brooks was an active member of the chapter until his death in 2017 at age 91.

In October 1943, Brooks joined the growing ranks of African Americans who helped break the color barrier in the Marines. He trained at the segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina, where about 20,000 blacks received basic training under poor living conditions between 1942 and 1949.

According to a handwritten label on the trunk, Brooks shipped it from Europe, where he was serving in the Army, to his home in Fort Monmouth, N.J., a common practice for soldiers returning from abroad.

Brooks served six years in the Marines before joining the Army in 1949 and seeing combat duty in the Korean War. He retired in 1962 as a chief warrant officer but returned for a civilian assignment in Vietnam in 1973 with the Department of the Navy.

Geeter believes Brooks may have shipped the trunk in 1953 when he returned home after the Korean War. The trunk resembles Army-issued gear, he said.

What happened to the trunk after that is unknown. Brooks’ grandson Zach, 27, a doctoral student in Africology at Temple University, said he was quite familiar with his grandfather’s military career but unaware of the trunk’s existence.

“It’s interesting that the suitcase lasted for as long as it did and no one threw it out,” Zach Brooks said. “It will bring further attention to my grandfather and his legacy.”

On Feb. 23, 1945, when six Marines raised the American flag atop 550-foot Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, many thought the war was over. Brooks and his unit went ashore to deliver ammunition several days after the first wave of Marines stormed the tiny volcanic Pacific island. Brooks was struck with shrapnel and evacuated to a hospital ship in Hawaii. When the vicious fighting ended, more than 6,000 Americans were dead and 20,000 had been wounded during the five-week battle.

In 2012, Brooks was among a contingent of nearly 400 surviving Montford Point Marines who received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Barack Obama. The nation’s highest civilian honor, it was presented for their courage and determination that went unrecognized for decades.

“If this had been my relative, I would want that piece of history,” said Lerner. “As long as they want it, I would love for them to have it.”

Zach Brooks said the family would like to add the trunk to his grandfather’s collection of military memorabilia and will make arrangements to get it from Lerner. The family may consider donating it to Temple University’s Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection, he said.

“The trunk is significant because of who it belonged to,” said Geeter. “He was an American hero.”


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer