In the year 1909, William Howard Taft served as President, The NAACP was founded and Lawrence Brooks became the newest edition to his family in Norwood, Louisiana, right outside of Baton Rouge.
Today, Brooks is known as the oldest known U.S. WWII veteran after turning 111-years-old.
Brooks served as a support worker in the Army’s 91st Engineer Battalion, a majority African-American unit stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines during the war. He reached the rank of private first class.
He received his draft notice at the age of 31. During that time the Selective Service required all men younger than 45 to register. He was sent to Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, then San Antonio and Beaumont, Texas, and finally Fort Polk, where the group participated in the famous Louisiana maneuvers during the spring of 1941.
Brooks did not serve in combat. Black units in the segregated armed forces, including the 91st Engineer Battalion, were subject to mostly physical labor.
The Army discharged Brooks on Nov. 7, 1941, after his one-year obligation ended, only to get called on again a month later after Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, the 91st battalion spent 48 days on the Queen Mary in a voyage from New York to Australia, a voyage made longer as the liner zigzagged to avoid German submarines in the Atlantic and Japanese ones in the Pacific. Brooks served as an orderly for three officers — fetching them meals, cleaning their uniforms and sheets, and shining their shoes.
Brooks said he accepted the work as just another duty that somebody had to do.
“An old sergeant told me that the best thing I could do was do what I was told, and keep my mouth shut,” Brooks said. “But I’d already been able to get along with everybody.”
“They’d get up early in the morning and have me drive them somewhere,” Brooks said of the officers. “Then I’d go back to my bunk and sleep. They just sort of took a liking to me. They treated me like a soldier and not their servant.”
The 91st battalion would eventually transfer to New Guinea where Brooks encountered a near-death experience.
An incendiary bomb destroyed the tent that he shared with seven others while they were watching a movie nearby. Another time, an engine went out on a flight back from Australia, and he and the crew had to throw bails of barbed wire overboard to lighten the load.
Brooks prides his services in the military even though race relations during that time were far from ideal. Black soldiers in the war also fought issues such as discrimination and hostility at home.
Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, says the U.S. military then had “racist characterizations” of African-American soldiers during the war.
“You couldn’t put a gun in their hands,” he says of the then-prevalent attitude. “They could do simple menial tasks. That was the lot of the African-American soldier, sailor, airman, you name it.”
“We went to war with Hitler, the world’s most horrible racist, and we did so with a segregated army because, despite guarantees of equal treatment, this was still Jim Crow America,” Citino says. “African Americans were still subject to all kinds of limitations and discrimination based on the color of their skin. I think they were fighting for the promise of America rather than the reality of America.”
The military was not formally desegregated until President Harry Truman forced it with a 1948 executive order. For Brooks, who served in the Army between 1940 and 1945, that order would come too late.
Of the 16 million U.S. veterans who fought in World War II, only about 300,000 are still alive today. A still spunky and spry Brooks credits a healthy lifestyle, deep faith and love of people for his longevity.
Brooks was widowed in 2005 when his second wife, Leona, died shortly after the couple was evacuated by helicopter following Hurricane Katrina.
He is a father to 5 children (2 deceased), 13 grandchildren and more than 20 great-grandchildren.
Every year since 2014, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans throws Brooks a birthday bash. However, since the pandemic, plans have changed.
This year the museum asked people across the country to mail the 111-year-old birthday cards.
“We just thought there has to be some way that we can still celebrate him in a way that is safe but also gets more people involved,” said museum spokesperson Amber Mitchell in an interview with CNN. “If we aren’t able to gather in ways that we’re used to, we can always invent new ways to connect or rediscover old ways, like you would with a birthday card.”
Several hundred gifts and cards have already arrived.
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