The oldest living U.S. veteran of World War II turned 111 on Saturday and credited his faith for his life.
Lawrence Brooks, who was born Sept. 12, 1909, in Norwood, Louisiana, served in the U.S. Army as a black man when the armed forces were still segregated. He was a part of the Army’s 91st Engineer Battalion, which was a predominantly black unit that was stationed in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines.
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper gave Brooks a shout-out for his birthday on Twitter, writing, “Happy 111th birthday to our oldest living WW2 veteran, Lawrence Brooks. I salute your service and your lifetime of determination.”
Happy 111th birthday to our oldest living WW2 veteran, Lawrence Brooks. I salute your service and your lifetime of determination. pic.twitter.com/09a37yv6Yv
— Dr. Mark T. Esper (@EsperDoD) September 12, 2020
In a profile earlier this year in National Geographic, Brooks explained that he loves people and was upset when he had to be trained to kill others after being drafted at age 31.
“My mother and father always raised me to love people, and I don’t care what kind of people they are,” he said. “And you mean to tell me, I get up on these people and I got to go kill them? Oh, no, I don’t know how that’s going to work out.”
Brooks “was the servant to three white officers in the battalion” and achieved the rank of Private 1st Class, according to CNN. He cleaned and cooked for them and would sometimes drive the officers to town.
According to an interview he did with the National World War II Museum in 2014, Brooks had a close brush with death when the motor gave out on a C-47 cargo plane he was on. They tossed much of the cargo from the plane, which had only enough parachutes for two people. “It was a scary moment,” he remembered. “But we made it.”
Serving years before President Harry S. Truman would desegregate the military in 1948, and decades before the Civil Rights Act would desegregate the nation, Brooks remembered that he was treated better abroad than he was at home.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people,” Brooks told National Geographic. “I wondered about that. That’s what worried me so much. Why?”
Regarding the unequal treatment that he and his fellow black soldiers received, Brooks said he learned not to talk about it. “Every time I think about it, I’d get angry, so the best thing I’d do is just leave it go,” he said.
Rob Citino, a senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told National Geographic that many of the approximately 1.2 million black soldiers that served in World War II were treated as “second-class citizens” at home.
“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 said. “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.”
After the war, Brooks worked as a forklift operator until he retired in his 70s, according to National Geographic. His descendants include five children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren. Brooks’ wife, Leona, died during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which he said “took everything I owned, washed away everything.”
Brooks didn’t speak about his wartime experiences much with his family over the years. “I had some good times and I had some bad times,” he said. “I just tried to put all the good ones and the bad ones together and tried to forget about all of them.”
The secret to a life well-lived, Brooks told National Geographic, is to “serve God, and be nice to people.”
Related: In Memoriam: Fiske Hanley, World War II Veteran And ‘Special Prisoner,’ 1920-2020