When the United States formally entered World War II — the six-year-long global conflict that began in 1939 with Nazi Germany's attack on Poland — in 1941, millions of brave Americans helped to fight for the cause. Among them was New Orleans resident Lawrence Brooks, who served the country for five years as a soldier in the US Army's 91st Engineer Battalion. Fortunately for us, Brooks, who will celebrate his 111th birthday on September 12, 2020, is still around to share his exciting encounters.
Born in Norwood, Louisiana, in 1909, Brooks was one of 15 children. He moved to New Orleans as a young man and worked in a laundry and a parking garage before being drafted in the army at the age of 31. He was discharged after serving the mandatory one-year term with the 91st Engineer Battalion — a primarily African American unit responsible for building military infrastructure — in November 1941, only to be re-enlisted a month later to help the US efforts in World War II. Brooks began as a support worker and eventually rose to the rank of Private First Class — the highest-ranking level of Private in the US Army. The designation is given to individuals who carry out all tasks and orders assigned to them to the best of their ability.
As an African American soldier serving during a time when racial segregation was alive and well in the US Army, Brooks often faced discrimination. Dr. Robert Citino, senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, says, "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. 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."
However, the supercentenarian tries not to dwell on the negative experiences. "I had some good times, and I had some bad times," Brooks said in an interview with the National Geographic. "I just tried to put all the good ones and the bad ones together and tried to forget about all of them."
During his five years serving in the US Army, Brooks encountered numerous life-threatening situations. The veteran particularly recalls one incident when he, along with two other soldiers, were tasked with transporting a shipment of barbed wire from Australia to New Guinea. While en route, one of the engines of their C-47 plane suddenly died. "There was the pilot, the co-pilot and me and just two parachutes," Brooks said in his oral history interview with the museum. "I told them, 'If we have to jump, I'm going to grab one of them.'" Fortunately, their strategy of offloading their cargo into the ocean to stabilize the plane worked and the three soldiers were able to land safely.
Brooks, who earned the title of America's oldest-living veteran after Richard Arvin Overton passed at the age of 112 in 2018, attributes his longevity to his healthy lifestyle. For the past five years, the National Museum of World War II has commemorated the veteran's milestone birthdays with community parties, which include live performances from Victory Belles, a popular local trio of singers.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced museum officials to cancel the in-person festivities this year. However, they still plan to make Brooks' day special and have asked Americans around the country to mail birthday cards addressed to the veteran to the museum. On September 12, 2020, a small group of face mask-wearing museum personnel will hand-deliver the cards, and any gifts or flowers received, to the veteran at his New Orleans residence, which he shares with his daughter.
"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," Amber Mitchell, the museum's Assistant Director of Public Engagement told 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."
While the September 1, 2020, deadline to send the written greetings has long passed, you can still wish the amazing veteran a happy birthday by adding your comments below!