Lawrence N. Brooks, the country’s oldest World War II veteran and considered to be the country’s oldest man, died on Wednesday at the age of 112.
His death was confirmed by his daughter and publicized by the National WWII Museum.
According to Col. Pete Crean, vice president of education and access at the museum in New Orleans, most African Americans serving in the segregated United States armed forces at the start of World War II were assigned to noncombat units and relegated to service duties such as supply, maintenance, and transportation.
“There’s no other way to define it but plain racism,” Crean remarked.
Brooks, who was born on September 12, 1909, was noted for his excellent humor, positivism, and friendliness. “Serving God and being good to people,” he often responded when asked for his secret to living a long life.
During an oral history interview with the museum in 2014, he declared, “I don’t have any ill emotions toward people.” “All I want is for everything to turn out well.” I want people to have a good time and be joyful instead of depressed.”
Brooks was renowned for relaxing on the front porch of his double shotgun house in the Central City district of New Orleans on sunny days with his daughter Vanessa Brooks. Neighbors would greet the local star with a wave and deliver soda and food.
Brooks was a die-hard New Orleans Saints fan who never missed a game, according to his daughter. His church, St. Luke’s Episcopal, was particularly dear to him, and until the coronavirus epidemic struck, he never missed a Sunday service.
Brooks’ family relocated to the Mississippi Delta when he was a baby from Norwood, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge. His parents taught him all they could at home because he was one of 15 children and lived too far away from the nearest school.
Brooks was recruited into the US Army in 1940 while working at a sawmill. He was deployed to the predominantly black 91st Engineer General Service Regiment stationed in Australia after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Due to troop losses later in the conflict, the military was compelled to start deploying more African American troops into combat situations. Fewer than 4,000 African Americans served in the military in 1941. By 1945, the figure had risen to over 1.2 million.
Brooks served in the 91st Engineer Battalion, which built bridges, roads, and airstrips for planes. Brooks was tasked with looking after three white policemen. His responsibilities included cooking, driving, and caring for their belongings.
President Joe Biden uploaded a video on Twitter on Wednesday of him contacting Brooks last year to wish him a happy Veterans Day.
Biden tweeted, “He was genuinely the finest of America.”
Biden complimented Brooks’ daughter Vanessa for taking such wonderful care of him in the Veterans Day video.
“What people don’t comprehend is that when you look at your father, you think of all the African American soldiers who fought — and some who died — in World War II and were never given recognition,” he added.
According to his daughter, Brooks did not often talk publicly about the persecution he and other Black troops suffered during the war, or about the discrimination his family faced in the Jim Crow Deep South.
Brooks did mention how much better he was treated as a Black man in Australia compared to the United States, according to Crean, who got to know Brooks and his family via his job at the museum. Brooks, on the other hand, warned Crean that thinking about it would make him upset, so he tried not to. Brooks mentioned during his oral history interview that the officers he cared for were kind to him and that he was lucky not to have to participate in battle.
“I struck it rich. “I was thinking to myself, ‘If I’m going to shoot at someone, someone else is going to shoot at me, and he could get fortunate and hit,'” he explained.
He commonly recalled the story of being a passenger on a C-47 cargo plane that was bringing a load of barbed wire to the front when one of the plane’s engines failed.
He made his way to the cockpit when they emptied the cargo to save weight. He informed the pilot and co-pilot that because they were the only ones with parachutes, he would grab one of them if they had to jump for it.
During the 2014 oral history interview, he laughed and remarked, “We made it, though.” “That made us laugh hysterically.”
Brooks was hit by enemy fire during the war, while not being in combat. He said that the Japanese bombed Owen Island, where he worked, on occasion. He claimed to have learned to distinguish between the noises of incoming Japanese, American, and German planes.
He explained, “We’d be racing around like crazy, trying to conceal.” To protect themselves, they had to dig foxholes.
In August 1945, he was dismissed from the army as a private first class.
He worked as a forklift driver after returning from duty until his retirement in his 60s. He is the father of five children, five stepchildren, and a large number of grandkids and great-grandchildren. Soon after Hurricane Katrina, he lost his wife, Leona.
His home was damaged in the 2005 tragedy. Then, in his late 90s, he was helicoptered from the top of his house. He was described as “resilient” by his daughter.
“He’s gone through a lot in his life. One thing I learnt from him is that he’s a pretty tough guy. “If nothing else, he taught me to try my best and not to worry about what you can’t accomplish,” she told the Associated Press. “I believe that is why he has lived so long.”
The museum began throwing him yearly birthday parties after his 105th birthday. Watching the Victory Belles, a trio playing 1940s song, was his favorite part of the celebration. During the coronavirus epidemic in 2020 and 2021, the museum put on a parade in front of his house with brass bands and full-dressed Zulu warriors.
“Even at 112, Mr. Brooks got up and danced for a short while,” Crean added.