When Lawrence Brooks was a young soldier stationed in World War II’s Pacific theater, he was assigned to a C-47 plane tasked with carrying a shipment of barbed wire from Australia to New Guinea. Suddenly, one of the plane’s engines went out.
Panicking, he, the pilot and co-pilot lobbed loads of wire into the ocean in hopes of stabilizing the craft. Brooks remembers joking that if the pilot jumped, he’d grab onto him. After all, the plane was only equipped with two parachutes.
“It was a scary moment,” he recounted in a 2015 oral history interview. “But we made it.”
Brooks survived that close call. But on Wednesday, the 112-year-old died as the United States’ oldest living World War II veteran. He is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.
In his later years, Brooks celebrated his birthday at the National World War II Museum in his home city of New Orleans. In 2020, with partygoers unable to gather in person due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum asked well-wishers to send the supercentenarian birthday cards via mail.
In a statement, Stephen J. Watson, president and CEO of the museum, called Brooks a man of great faith and "gentle spirit."
"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," Watson said. "His kindness, smile and sense of humor connected him to generations of people who loved and admired him."
In 1940, 31-year-old Brooks was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 91st Engineer Battalion. As Talia Lakritz reported for Insider last year, he was stationed mainly in New Guinea and the Philippines, working as a support worker and eventually achieving the rank of private first class.
National Geographic’s Chelsea Brasted noted that Brooks, who is black, served in a battalion predominately made up of African American soldiers. For a time, he even worked as a servant for three white officers.
During World War II, black soldiers faced discrimination both at home and abroad. A particularly egregious example of racism within the military was the preferential treatment afforded to German prisoners of war, who were allowed to dine in restaurants across the Deep South even as African American soldiers were forced to eat out of sight in the kitchens, wrote Matthew Taub for Time in 2020.
“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,” Robert Citino, a senior historian at the WWII Museum, told National Geographic in 2020. “African Americans were still subject to all kinds of limitations and discrimination based on the color of their skin.”
Brooks’ time in the Army drew to a close in 1945—a full three years before President Harry S. Truman officially desegregated the U.S. military.
“I had some good times and I had some bad times,” Brooks tells National Geographic. “I just tried to put all the good ones and the bad ones together and tried to forget about all of them.”
After the war, Brooks worked as a forklift operator. He retired in his 70s and lived with his daughter and caretaker, Vanessa Brooks, in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans.
Brooks’ wife, Leona, died in 2005 following the couple’s evacuation by helicopter during Hurricane Katrina. The storm “took everything I owned, washed away everything,” he later reflected.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, just 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2021.
This story has been updated from its original 2020 version with the news of Brooks' death.