At 112, Lawrence Brooks was previously the oldest living World War II veteran in the world. Once asked about his secret to old age, the supercentenarian said “Be nice to people.”
Brooks passing in early 2022 left a hole the many lives he touched over more than a century of life.
“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 was born in 1909, one of 15 children raised in Louisiana and Mississippi. He was drafted into the U.S. Army at the age of 31, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Army Brooks fought for had different rules back then.
“We had our tents, and the whites had their tents,” Brooks told the Army Times.
Serving with the largely African American 91st Engineer Battalion, Brooks was able to visit Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines. Her worked as a driver, valet and cook for three officers, two lieutenants and a captain. He also helped build bridges, roads and airstrips.
Brooks would earn the rank of Private 1st Class during his time in the service. He would also become increasingly aware of the institutional racial division in the United States.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people. I wondered about that,” he told the National World War II Museum.
Brooks never experienced combat, but he did come close to death in at least one experience.
“On one flight to pick up supplies between Australia and New Guinea, an engine failed on Brooks’ plane while flying over the ocean,” according to a report from the WWII museum. 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.”
Brooks was discharged in August 1945, after which, he got married and started a family.
Brooks worked as a forklift operator until he retired in the 1980s. His wife, Leona, died in November 2008, NPR reports.
Even at 112 years old, he was still mentally sharp, the Associated Press maintains, though his body had grown weak.
The veteran’s daughter Vanessa, his primary caregiver, told the AP that Brooks he had recently undergone surgery after suffering a fall and a kidney infection. By his birthday in September, Brooks had gone almost completely blind and deaf on one side, with his remaining vision fading.
These setbacks were not enough to hold Brooks back from enjoying his birthday, however. Brooks was treated to a drive-by parade and serenaded by the National World War II Museum’s singing trio, while military jets flew over his New Orleans home in tight formation.
The following month, Brooks daughter managed to get an authentic reproduction World War II uniform and a badge from his father’s old unit. She had previously obtained replacement medals and a certificate of appreciation for his service from Brooks’ old unit’s current commanding officer.
Vanessa Brooks has been trying to give her father the appreciation she feels the U.S. military never did.
“My father earned the Good Conduct Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Presidential Unit Medal, then he was left behind,” she said. “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.”
Despite the struggles that he and so many other Black Americans faced in the military, Brooks was proud of his service. He requested to be buried in his new uniform.
Brooks is survived survived by five children, 13 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren.