Lawrence Brooks, the oldest known living American veteran of World War II, died early Wednesday morning, according to the National World War II Museum. He was 112.
“He was a beloved friend, a man of great faith and had a gentle spirit that inspired those around him,” said Stephen Watson, the museum’s president and chief executive. “He proudly served our country during World War II, and returned home to serve his community and church. His kindness, smile and sense of humor connected him to generations of people who loved and admired him.”
Brooks had been in and out of the local veterans’ hospital in New Orleans in recent months, and while still mentally sharp, his body had grown weak, according to the Associated Press.
At the time of his most recent birthday in September, his daughter Vanessa Brooks told the AP, he had recently undergone surgery, suffered a fall, had a kidney infection, and had lost much of his hearing and sight in one eye, with his vision fading in the other.
Still, by all accounts, the supercentenarian maintained a sunny disposition throughout much of his life and was a beloved figure in his community and around the world.
His latest birthday celebration, on Sept. 12, included a drive-by parade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a serenade by the National World War II Museum’s singing trio, and a military flyover of his New Orleans shotgun house.
From the American South to military service in Australia and beyond
Born in 1909, Brooks was one of 15 children and was raised in rural Louisiana and Mississippi. He was drafted into the U.S. Army a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor at age 31 when the military was still racially segregated.
“We had our tents, and the whites had their tents,” Brooks told the Military Times. “They were next to each other, like next door.”
Brooks spent his time during the war serving with the largely African American 91st Engineer Battalion, stationed in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines.
For much of that time, Brooks was a driver, valet and cook for three officers, two lieutenants and a captain, the Army Times reported. He also helped build bridges, roads and airstrips. Eventually he earned the rank of Private 1st Class.
Throughout his service in Australia, Brooks enjoyed a level of freedom he’d never experienced before, either in the military or at home. In interviews with the National World War II Museum, he marveled over that country’s acceptance of Black soldiers, which were a marked contrast to the racist Jim Crow laws of the south at the time.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people. I wondered about that,” he recalled.
While he never faced combat Brooks did experience his share of terrifying moments.
“On one flight to pick up supplies between Australia and New Guinea, an engine failed on Brooks’ plane while flying over the ocean,” the museum says. As soldiers began throwing out cargo to compensate for the loss of power, Brooks moved to stand near the cockpit, explaining that the pilots were the only men on the plane with parachutes “and if he saw them running by he was going to hang on as they went out the door.”
After Brooks was discharged in August 1945, he got married, had a family and worked as a forklift operator until retiring about four decades later. His wife, Leona, died in November 2008.
A daughter strives to ensure her father’s achievements are preserved
His 61-year-old daughter Vanessa had been Brooks’ primary caregiver for the last 13 years of his life. In addition to the labor-intensive responsibilities of keeping him physically and mentally healthy, she had also taken charge of replacing many of Brooks’ military awards and mementos, including items that were lost in the floods following Hurricane Katrina.
In November she succeeded in getting an authentic reproduction World War II uniform and a badge from his father’s old unit, the Army Times reports. He had also recently received replacement medals and a certificate of appreciation for his service from his old unit’s current commanding officer. But Vanessa Brooks is still working on replacing her father’s good conduct medal.
“My father earned the Good Conduct Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Presidential Unit Medal, then he was left behind,” his daughter said in recent interviews discussing how Black GIs were discriminated against after WWII.
“He served the same five years. He was bombed and strafed in the South Pacific but was not offered a low-interest bank loan, a reduced down payment for a house, or an education,” she added, recalling how much Brooks wanted to go to school after the war.
Brooks is survived survived by five children, 13 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren. As he requested, he will be buried in his new uniform.
When asked the secret to his longevity and long-lasting good health, Brooks had a simple piece of advice: “Be nice to people.”