The Smothers Family’s link to Philippines, by Martin Meadows

Smothers Brothers in 1965 photoA veritable blizzard of media accounts followed the death on 26 December 2023 of Tom Smothers, the senior half of the famed Smothers Brothers, whose show-business credentials date to the 1960s. The purpose of this post is not to add to that blizzard; on the contrary, my initial intention was simply to briefly highlight that the brothers (in what I thought was a not-well-known fact) had been evacuated from the Philippines not long before the Pearl Harbor attack brought the U.S. into WWII; and — a slightly better-known fact — that the brothers’ father, a Major in the U.S. Army, later died while in Japanese captivity. My initial post, consisting of a grand total of four lines, has since been transformed into this somewhat more extensive report.

Why the changed plans, and what did that involve? My initial reaction soon changed when I looked through the flood of accounts about Tom Smothers and his family. I then decided to look more closely into the whole family’s history prior to the immediate post-WWII period. Given that context, my revised decision resulted from the fact that virtually all of the stories about the Smothers family displayed one or more of the following shortcomings — information was either non-existent, incomplete, and/or just plain wrong. (That verdict applies, for example, to the article whose link is attached at the bottom, along with two illustrative paragraphs from the article, which are excerpted from about 1/3 of the way into the article. The verdict even applies to the Wikipedia entry on the brothers.)

To make it clear at the outset, however, this narrative does not seek to present a comprehensive review of the family’s history; nor does it deal in any way with the Smothers Brothers’ show-business history, which, as noted, has been covered by innumerable writers. Its purposes are twofold: to present the highlights of the missing and thus almost completely unknown record of the head of the Smothers family prior to his arrival in the Philippines in 1940; and to clarify the almost always incorrect, and often even badly-garbled “facts,” relating to the Smothers children’s births and their arrival in and later evacuation from the Philippines.

This brief chronicle begins, naturally, with the family patriarch, U.S. Army Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr. His father (Tom’s paternal grandfather) was Thomas Bolyn Smothers (1874-1958), and his mother was Maude Frances Reid (1880-1966). Thomas and Maude had three children — Paul Green Smothers (1903-1953); the future Major Thomas B. Smothers, Jr. (1908-1945), and Brona/Bronna Reid Smothers (Masten) (1910-2003). Focusing on our main concern, Smothers Jr. eventually married Ruth Genevieve Remick (1916-1988), who was born in Denver, Colorado; after his death in WWII she remarried, and later died in Santa Rosa, California. Smothers Jr. and his wife had three children: the future Smothers Brothers team of Tom and Dick, and their younger sister, Sherry, sometimes cited as Sharon (relevant dates on all three are provided below).

As noted, discussion of Smothers Jr. will be limited mainly to the pre-WWII period, for two major reasons. First of all, there exist several amazingly detailed (and quite graphic) accounts of what happened to him while he was a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII. And second, I have neither the expertise nor the time to attempt to detect possible inaccuracies/errors (if any) within these various accounts, let alone to reconcile them (if indeed that would be called for). A final note: To avoid confusion, as well as to simplify matters, henceforth Smothers Jr. will be referred to as Thomas (and toward the end as Major), and his elder son will be referred to as Tom.

SIDEBAR. Tom’s full name was Thomas Bolyn Smothers, III; and Dick’s full name is Richard Remick Smothers. Incidentally, one of Tom’s three sons was named Thomas Bolyn Smothers IV; he was born in 1965 and preceded his father in death, having also passed in April 2023. Tom IV has one son who, however, is not Tom V — his name is Phoenix Parrish Smothers. As it happens, Tom’s sister Sherry/Sharon strangely also died in April 2023, which proved to be an unusually sad year for the Smothers family.)

Thomas was born on 27 July 1908, in Rockingham, North Carolina. His parents later moved to Winston-Salem, NC, where he attended the city’s public schools, and graduated from Reynolds High School in 1925. Below are photos from the school’s 1925 yearbook, the “Black and Gold.”

Thomas Smothers, 1925 yearbook photo

Black & Gold, 1925. Tom was known for his enormous vocabulary. In the class prophecy, which he wrote, he is mentioned as having published a dictionary containing 20,000 words of 15 syllables or more. Click for full image.

Tom Smothers 1925 Black & Gold staff photo

Tom Smothers is at far left in the front row. Click for full image.

After leaving high school, Thomas entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from where he graduated in 1929, with a commission as second lieutenant. Here is his photo from the 1929 West Point yearbook, “The Howitzer.”

Thomas Smothers in West Point uniform

Following his graduation from West Point, Thomas was stationed at a number of locations during the 1930s. Those included three years in Panama, either at Fort Bruja (renamed Fort Kobbe in 1932) and/or at Howland Air Force base in the Canal Zone; Fort Douglas, Utah; Fort Moultrie, South Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Hamilton, N.Y. In 1935, no doubt while he was stationed in Utah, he married Ruth Genevieve Remick (photo below), in a full military ceremony, complete with arched swords, as recounted in 1989 by Sherry. (She also mentioned that Thomas, a practical joker, arranged for an M.P. to arrest him in the middle of the marriage ceremony. Both anecdotes came, of course, from her late mother.)

Ruth Remick Somers undated photo

Ruth Genevieve Remick Smothers

While Thomas was stationed at Fort Hamilton, which is located in Brooklyn, New York, he attained the rank of captain in June 1939. Exactly one year later, in June 1940, he was sent to the Philippines, assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. His family, which by then included the two future Smothers Brothers, accompanied him to the U.S. possession. And little more than a year later, in October 1941, he was promoted to the rank of major. At this point we now turn our attention to the task of establishing the facts concerning the family’s children and their evacuation from the Philippines — information which, as already noted, usually is incomplete at best and, far more often, erroneous at worst.

To begin with, many stories about Tom and Dick fail to list even the correct years of their births. These are the facts: Both Tom and Dick were born at the military Post Hospital on Governors Island, which is not far from Fort Hamilton, where Thomas was stationed. Tom was born on 2 February 1937, and Dick was born on 20 November 1938. Generally the stories get Tom’s birth date right, but then either misstate Dick’s birth date as 1939, or — as in the article attached below — assert only that Dick “was born two years later.” It is indeed true that the brothers are/were nearly two years apart in age, but most if not all people would take “two years later” than 1937 to mean 1939 rather than 1938 — and besides, 20 November 1939 is nearly three years after 2 February 1937.

The birth-date issue is even more muddled with regard to the brothers’ younger sister Sherry/Sharon. Moreover, the question of her status in 1941 is intertwined with that of when the children and their mother were evacuated from the Philippines to avoid the war. To start with the latter, at best some accounts simply mention the evacuation without specifying a date, though usually they also imply, or outright declare, that it was a close call — that they barely avoided the start of the war. Other reports, however, are badly mistaken, and once again the attached article is an example — it claims that, “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Maj. Smothers remained.” This is the most ludicrous possible error — for, aside from being factually wrong, it ignores the fact that it was extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for civilians — including military dependents — to leave the country after the Pearl Harbor attack.

That leads us to the egregious errors committed by virtually all coverage of the evacuation issue, especially in connection with Sherry/Sharon Lynn (1941-2023). Once more the attached article is at fault; like many similar narratives, it says that, when Thomas was sent to the Philippines, “his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him.” Other stories say the same, and thus also explicitly state — rather than merely imply — that Sherry was among the evacuees. Too, they usually indicate — obviously to hype the drama of the occasion — that the family’s departure occurred in the nick of time.

Although I have found no source which furnishes a specific date for the family’s departure, it is quite likely that they left Manila in July of 1941, or August at the very latest — in any case, the timing of their departure was far from a close call. The evidence for that is provided by material in two newspaper articles. One is a 1952 report in the Winston-Salem Twin City Sentinel, which states that “Sharon [Sherry], the youngest child, was born Sept. 18, 1941, a short time after the officer’s [i.e., Thomas’] wife [and sons] arrived back in this country.” The other is a 1989 piece in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, in which Sherry/Sharon recounts that her mother told her that, in order for the family to be evacuated by ship, she lied that she was only three months pregnant (with Sherry) rather than admit she was six months along, as that would have prevented them from leaving. Below is a photo of the recently-returned Smothers family.

Smothers Family, Winston-Salem Journal, 1 May 1942

Sherry Lynn Smothers photo

Sherry Lynn Smothers

In view of the almost universal confused and erroneous accounts surrounding the related issues of the birth of Sherry and the family’s evacuation from Manila, having determined the approximate date of their departure constitutes, in my view, a useful — if not a fairly significant — finding. Much less so, but perhaps equally helpful, is having made clear the date, and the circumstances, of Sherry’s birth. (While on the subject of Sherry, it may be worth mention that she had an unusual number and variety of jobs during her lifetime, rather than one dominant occupation; also, she was married once, very briefly, an episode she called a “silly part of my life.”)

This survey has achieved (whether successfully or not) its two principal objectives, as stated above. Its final task — for the record, for the sake of completeness, and above all to honor the Major’s service and emphasize the horrific suffering he endured — is to present an extremely sketchy outline of Major Smothers’ experiences following the Pearl Harbor attack and as a prisoner of the Japanese Empire. In April 1942, according to one account, he joined and became the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion of the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. He survived both the Battle of Bataan and the Death March, as well as close to three years in the Cabanatuan POW camp. He was then sent to Bilibid in Manila, from where he was among more than 1600 American captives transferred in December 1944 to the notorious Hell Ship Oryoku Maru, that U.S. bombers sank as it was leaving Manila Bay. He and other survivors of the attack were then placed in the Hell Ship Enoura Maru, which also was bombed after it arrived in Formosa in January 1945. American survivors of that attack were then sent on the Brazil Maru to Japan, where the badly wounded Major was sent to a military hospital in Fukuoka. From there he was sent to a POW slave-labor camp in February.

In late April 1945 the Major was taken by stretcher to the Fukuoka docks, preparatory to being sent on to Korea and eventually to what was then Mukden in Manchuria. Accounts of subsequent developments differ, but it seems that the Major died during the night of April 25-26, as a result of several factors, including malnutrition, beri beri, pneumonia, cardiac asthma, hypothermia, and his wounds. His body was sent to Korea anyway (the result of complex bureaucratic factors), and apparently it was left on the docks there at Fusan. His eventual fate seems to be unknown for certain; again, accounts differ — he was left on the Fusan docks to an unknown fate, he was buried at sea, he was cremated in Korea. Whatever the case may be, one thing should be made clear to conclude this particular episode of the Major’s story: all of the gruesome details of his treatment — and by extension the treatment of other Japanese prisoners — have deliberately been left out, in the interests of time, space, and above all the reader’s peace of mind.

Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr. was an authentic war hero — of that there is no dispute. Lacking — and instead of — a burial place for the Major, there are monuments to him at Fort William McKinley in Manila, and at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila; and his name is on the Tablets (or Wall) of the Missing there. His family received several of his posthumous awards, including the Purple Heart Medal, the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Prisoner of War Medal. Below is a 1945 article reporting his loss, with a fitting photo of Major Smothers.

Major Thomas Smothers Died on Japanese prison ship


  • Barbara Burklo, “Life in the Smothers Family,” Santa Cruz Sentinel (21 February 1989), p. 7
  • Bill East, “Smothers Children arrive in City,” Twin City Sentinel (??? 1952), online entry
  •, “Family tree of Tom Smothers” (undated online entry)
  •, “Ruth Genevieve Remick Smothers” (undated online entry)
  •, “MAJ Thomas Bolyn Smothers Jr.” (27 July 2008 online entry)
  • F. Moore and A. Dalton, “Comedian Tom Smothers. . . dies at 86” (28 December 2023 online entry) [used herein as an example of shoddy reporting]
  •, “NC native, Major Thomas B Smothers, 45 Inf PS, history” (undated online entry)
  • “Maj. Smothers Died on Jap Prison Ship,” Winston-Salem Journal (18 November 1945), p. 17
  • Mindy Kotler, “January 9, 1945 in Pacific POW History — More on the Smothers Brothers’ Father” (15 January 2024 email)
  •, “Smothers Brothers hit town. . . before they were famous. . .” (21 September 2014)
  •, “In memory Major Thomas Smothers, Jr. — POW of Japan” (undated online entry); also reproduced by Mindy Kotler in an email with the same subject title (30 December 2023)
  • Salvage Sailor, “MAJ Thomas Bolyn Smothers Jr., Philippine Scouts, POW” (27 December 2023 online entry)
  • “Sherry L. Smothers,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune (undated online obituary)
  • “They Keep Home Fires Burning,” Winston-Salem Journal (1 May 1942)
  • Wikipedia, “Smothers Brothers” (undated online entry)
  •, “Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, II” (undated online entry)

Tom Smothers photo

Link to Comedian Tom Smothers, one-half of the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

“Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, an Army major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940 their father was transferred to the Philippines, and his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Maj. Smothers remained. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, where Smothers helped his mother take care of his brother and sister while she worked.”

Other articles by Prof. Meadows:

Last updated 27 February 2024