Article by The Harrodsburg Herald
Several decades ago, Andrew M. Bryant Jr. discovered abandoned items from a World War II prisoner of war while rummaging a house in state of ruin near Harrodsburg. "In the early 1970s, I used to look through old, dilapidated houses in central Kentucky, including the Harrodsburg area,” said Bryant, a Danville native. "I recall noticing a small old farmhouse that was seriously starting to fall and talked to several nearby farm houses to get the status about it."
The neighbors informed Bryant the residents of the old house were believed to be deceased, so they allowed him to search it for items of value before it became unsafe to do so. "As I looked through the old house—which was falling apart—I found a very small attic," said Bryant. "While there, I found many old items, including items from World War II that once belonged to a man named Ernest Sampson."
Bryant had discovered lost history in that attic. The items found were personal artifacts as collected by Sgt. Ernest L. Sampson Jr., who served in the Kentucky Army National Guard during World War II. Among the items Bryant found were uniform patches, ration cards, newspaper articles dedicated to prisoners of war during World War II and a personal journal.
The journal was hand-made using paper from the back of cigarette rations and revealed a part of history as told by Sampson while held captive by the Imperial Japanese Army. "Immediately, I realized the great historical, military, and family significance of these items," said Bryant. "I took them home, wiped the dust and debris from them, and placed each item in a ziplock bag."
Bryant, who is now 72, served in the U.S. Army, from 1966-1969 and toured Vietnam as a member of Company A, 815th Engineer Battalion. Several of his family members served in armed conflicts, as well, including his brother and father, who served in Vietnam and World War II, respectively.
While researching Sampson, whose rank was private first class during World War II, Bryant knew this story was a valuable part of local history. Bryant learned Sampson was a native of Mercer County and a true local war hero.
Sampson enlisted into the Kentucky Army National Guard at the Harrodsburg unit, the 38th Tank Company, just before its federal activation and renaming to Company D, 192nd Light Tank Battalion, November 1940. The Harrodsburg-based armor unit was best known around the globe as the Harrodsburg Tankers. This nickname became a symbol for their strength, bravery, teamwork and perseverance.
Of the 66 Harrodsburg Tankers from Mercer County, only 37 survived the war. John Trowbridge, also a former Guardsman and expert on Kentucky National Guard history, conducted many interviews with the surviving Harrodsburg Tankers in the early 2000s as part of a video project to preserve their history. “When I interviewed these guys more than a decade ago, one minute I would be crying, the next I would be laughing,” said Trowbridge, co-producer of the historical documentary, “Bataan: The Harrodsburg Tankers.” “Findings like this excite me,” Trowbridge said. “As a part of their real history, this helps tell the story of what happened with these guys and the hell they went through. Here’s another piece of the story that can be shared with this generation and future generations.”
Trowbridge encourages everyone to preserve their family history. "If you have a grandfather, or family member, that you know has collected significant historical items, keep them safe," he said. "If you are unable to, contact someone that can, because this might help tell their story."
After holding the items for more than 47 years, Bryant decided to release the items to the Kentucky Army National Guard for safe keeping. "It has been my honor and privilege to have safe-guarded these historic documents for all of these past 45 plus years," Bryant said. "As I am getting older, it is my wish to pass on these items to the Kentucky Army National Guard; as it was the military unit that Ernest L. Sampson served in. I now hereby do so.”
Thanks to Bryant, the Kentucky Guard is able to preserve a small piece of history belonging to the Harrodsburg Tankers. The artifacts collected will soon be reviewed by the Kentucky Historical Society in hopes that, one day, they will go on public display at one of the museums in Frankfort.