By Leah Willingham and Rebecca Santana | The Associated Press
New Orleans – Lawrence N. Brooks, the oldest World War II veteran in the US – and considered the oldest person in the country – died Wednesday at the age of 112.
His death was announced by the National WWII Museum and confirmed by his daughter.
At the beginning of World War II most African Americans who served in the separate US Armed Forces were assigned to non-combat units and removed for service duties such as supply, maintenance, and transportation, the Vice President of Education and Access to Col. Pete Crin said. Museum in New Orleans.
“The reason for this was outright racism – there’s no other way to characterize it,” Creen said.
But Brooks, born on September 12, 1909, was known for his good-natured sense of humour, positivity and kindness. When asked the secret of his long life, he often said, “Serving God and treating people well.”
“I don’t have any hard feelings toward anyone,” he said during a 2014 oral history interview with the museum. “I just want everything to be cute, to come out right. I want people to have fun and enjoy – be happy and not be sad.”
On sunny days, Brooks was known to sit on the front porch of the Double Shotgun House, which he shared with daughter Vanessa Brooks, in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. Neighbors would call the local celebrity, shake hands and bring him soda and snacks.
His daughter said that Brooks was passionate about the New Orleans Saints football team and never missed a game. His church, St Luke’s Episcopal, was also close to his heart and he never missed Sunday service until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Originally from Norwood, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, Brooks’ family moved to the Mississippi Delta when he was an infant. He was one of 15 children, and lived far from the nearest school, so his parents taught him what they could do at home.
Brooks was working in a sawmill when he enlisted in the US Army in 1940. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the mostly black 91st Engineer General Service Regiment stationed in Australia.
Later in the war, troop losses forced the Army to keep more African American troops in combat positions. In 1941, fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military. By 1945, that number had grown to over 1.2 million.
The 91st, where Brooks served, was an army unit that built bridges, roads, and airstrips for aircraft. Brooks was appointed as the caretaker of three white officers. Their job was to cook, drive and look after their clothes.
Her daughter said that Brooks often did not speak publicly about the discrimination she and other black soldiers faced in the war, or the discrimination her family faced in the Jim Crow Deep South. said the daughter.
Creen, who got to know Brooks and his family through his work at the museum, said Brooks talked about noticing how much better he was treated as a black man in Australia than in America But Brooks told Creen that it would make him angry. , so he tried not to. During his oral history interview, Brooks said that the officers he cared for treated him well and that he considered himself lucky that he didn’t have to fight in a war.
“I got lucky. I was saying to myself, ‘If I’m going to shoot someone, someone’s going to shoot at me and he might get lucky and get hit,'” he said.
He often told the story of when he was a passenger on a C-47 aircraft carrying a load of barbed wire to the front when one of the transport aircraft’s engines broke down.
After he dumped the cargo to reduce weight, he made his way to the cockpit. He told the pilot and co-pilot that since they were only with two parachutes, if he had to jump for it, he was going to catch one of them.
“We made it up, though,” he said with a laugh during a 2014 oral history interview. “We had a lot of laughs about it.”
Despite not being in combat, Brooks experienced enemy fire during the battle. He said the Japanese would occasionally bomb Owen Island, where he worked. He said he learned to tell the difference between the sound of Japanese, American and German planes approaching.
“We must be running like crazy, trying to hide,” he said. They had to dig foxes to protect themselves.
He was discharged from the army in August 1945 as a private first class.
When he returned from service, he worked as a forklift driver until he retired in the 60s. He has five children, five step-children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He lost his wife Leona soon after Hurricane Katrina.
That disaster of 2005 destroyed his house. Then in the late 90s, he was taken out of the roof of his house by helicopter. His daughter described him as “resilient.”
“He’s been through a lot. He’s really tough, and that’s one thing I learned from him. If nothing else, he inspired me, ‘Do your best and don’t do what you can’t. There’s nothing to worry about,'” she told the AP. “I think that’s why he’s lived as long as he has.”
Starting from his 105th birthday, the museum started hosting him annual birthday parties. His favorite part of the celebration was watching the Victory Bells, a trio performing 1940s music. During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the museum organized a parade in full majesty with brass bands and krewe of Zulu warriors in front of their house.
“Even at 112, Mr. Brooks stood up and danced a little bit,” Creen said.
Willingham reported from Jackson, Mississippi and Santana from New Orleans.