The oldest living World War II veteran has died at the age of 112, according to the National WWII Museum.
The museum announced the passing of Lawrence Brooks on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.
He was the oldest known living U.S. veteran, according to the museum.
Museum officials issued the following statement regarding his death:
“One of 15 children, Brooks was born on September 12, 1909, and was raised in Norwood, Louisiana, a small village about 40 miles north of Baton Rouge. He was drafted into the US Army at the age of 31 and spent World War II in the predominantly African American 91st Engineer Battalion. He was stationed in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Classified as service personnel, he cleaned and cooked for three of the battalion’s white officers and attained the rank of Private 1st Class.
“Returning home after the war, Brooks worked as a forklift operator for four decades, retiring in his seventies. His wife, Leona, died in November 2008, and he is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren.
“Since 2014, The National WWII Museum has hosted Brooks’ birthday parties—he turned 105 that year—and his good humor and enthusiasm at these celebrations made him a much-beloved figure on the Museum’s New Orleans campus. Due to the pandemic, the Museum hosted his 111th and 112th birthday celebrations socially distanced at his New Orleans home with a car and Jeep parade, the Victory Belles singing troupe, and even a military flyover and a New Orleans jazz band. In 2020, the Museum launched a birthday card drive for him that generated an outpouring of affection, with Brooks receiving over 21,500 cards from all 50 states and nearly 30 countries.
“The Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers at The National WWII Museum will forever cherish the memories we shared with Lawrence Brooks,” said Stephen J. Watson, Museum President & CEO. “He was a beloved friend, a man of great faith, and had a gentle spirit that inspired those around him. As the nation’s oldest known living veteran, 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. We send our sincerest condolences to his daughter Vanessa and the entire Brooks family.”
“Despite having what was considered a fairly safe assignment during World War II, Brooks had several close calls. On one flight to pick up supplies between Australia and New Guinea, an engine failed on Brooks’ plane while flying over the ocean. The soldiers had to throw cargo out of the plane to compensate for the loss of power. When asked by another soldier why he was standing near the cockpit, Private Brooks replied that the pilots were the only ones with parachutes and if he saw them running by he was going to hang on as they went out the door. In another instance, a soldier near him was killed by a Japanese sniper, and the unit was pinned down.
“He remained proud of his military service for the rest of his life, although his memories of those days were mixed. “I had some good times, and I had some bad times,” Brooks once said. The violence of war did not come easy to him. “My mother and father always raised me to love people,” he remembered, “and I don’t care what kind of people they are.”
“During World War II, the US military was still segregated by race, as were virtually all areas of American life, and African Americans faced pervasive discrimination and racism. Looking back at this time in Australia, he remembered, “I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people. I wondered about that.”
“In Jim Crow America, however, Brooks’ story was typical. Of the 16 million Americans who donned a military uniform, no fewer than 1.2 million were African Americans. They served loyally and heroically but were treated as second-class citizens at home. The late historian Stephen Ambrose identified the great American paradox of the era: the United States fought the world’s worst racist, Adolf Hitler, but did so with a segregated army. Brooks didn’t talk about these issues with his fellow soldiers. “Every time I’d think about it, I’d get angry,” he said, “so the best thing I’d do is just leave it go.” Racial segregation within the military ranks survived World War II, and it was not until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the armed forces.
“Over the years, Brooks was asked countless times for advice and the secret to his longevity, and his answer remained consistent: “be nice to people.”
“His passing underscores the urgency and importance of the Museum’s mission to preserve stories of the men and women who served in World War II for future generations. Of the 16 million US veterans who fought in World War II, approximately 240,000 remain alive, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The entire National WWII Museum team mourns the loss of Brooks and remembers him fondly. We extend our deepest sympathies to his friends and family, and are honored to have his oral history in our collection as a permanent tribute.”