Lawrence Brooks, the oldest World War II veteran, died Wednesday at 112 years old in his native Louisiana.
Drafted in 1940, Brooks served in a segregated U.S. army as part of the mostly Black 91st Engineer Battalion where he climbed the ranks to Private 1st Class. Originally from a small village outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana he often recalled the freedom he experienced while part of the battalion stationed in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people. I wondered about that,” he once said, according to NBC News.
Brooks returned home to a Jim Crow era South and found work as a forklift operator until he retired in his 70s. He did not receive GI Bill benefits when he left the army and had to give up his dream of going to school.
“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,” said Vanessa Brooks, his daughter and caregiver, according to NPR.
Brooks’ daughter also has dreams of going to Tulane University in New Orleans, but cannot afford it. This story is one of many in the long history of Black WWII veterans and their descendants being denied federal benefits. Legislation is currently being considered to return those benefits to Black veterans who were denied them upon their return home.
His 61-year-old daughter Vanessa had been Brooks’ primary caregiver for the last 13 years of his life. In addition to the labor-intensive responsibilities of keeping him physically and mentally healthy, she had also taken charge of replacing many of Brooks’ military awards and mementos, including items that were lost in the floods following Hurricane Katrina.
In November she succeeded in getting an authentic reproduction World War II uniform and a badge from his father’s old unit, the Army Times reports. He had also recently received replacement medals and a certificate of appreciation for his service from his old unit’s current commanding officer. But Vanessa Brooks is still working on replacing her father’s good conduct medal.
“My father earned the Good Conduct Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Presidential Unit Medal, then he was left behind,” his daughter said in recent interviews discussing how Black GIs were discriminated against after WWII.
“He was a beloved friend, a man of great faith and had a gentle spirit that inspired those around him,” said Stephen Watson, president and chief executive of the National World War II Museum that hosted birthday parties for Brooks for the past seven years.
“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 is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.