The memories are more than 75 years old now: Cooking red beans and rice halfway around the world from the place in Louisiana that first made the recipe. Cleaning uniforms and shining shoes for three officers. Hopping in foxholes when his trained ear could tell the approaching warplanes were not American but Japanese.
The man who keeps these memories is older still. At 110, Lawrence Brooks is the oldest known U.S. veteran of World War II. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Of the 16 million U.S. veterans who served, about 300,000 are still alive today, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (Hear from the last living voices of WWII.)
Brooks is proud of his military service, even though his memories of it are complicated. Black soldiers fighting in the war could not escape the racism, discrimination, and hostility at home.
When Brooks was stationed with the U.S. Army in Australia, he was an African-American man in a time well before the Civil Rights Movement would at least codify something like equality in his home country.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people,” Brooks says. “I wondered about that. That’s what worried me so much. Why?”
Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, says the U.S. military then had “racist characterizations” of African-American soldiers during the war.
“You couldn’t put a gun in their hands,” he says of the then-prevalent attitude. “They could do simple menial tasks. That was the lot of the African-American soldier, sailor, airman, you name it.”
The jobs open to African-American troops depended on the branch of service and changed as the need for manpower increased throughout the long years of war.
“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 says. “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.”
Of the 16 million Americans who donned a military uniform, 1.2 million were African Americans who were “often being treated as second-class citizens at home,” Citino says.
To put that into perspective, Citino says, consider that German prisoners of war could have been served at restaurants while en route to or from their quarters at Camp Hearne in Texas, but the African-American soldiers who transported them would have been denied service.
Brooks says he never discussed these inequalities with his fellow African-American service members. “Every time I think about it, I’d get angry, so the best thing I’d do is just leave it go,” he says.
The military was not formally desegregated until President Harry Truman forced it with a 1948 executive order. For Brooks, who served in the Army between 1940 and 1945, that order would come too late.
A reluctant soldier, it didn’t sit right with him that he might be required to take another person’s life.
“My mother and father always raised me to love people, and I don’t care what kind of people they are,” he says. “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.” (See maps of nine key moments from WWII.)
Raised in Norwood, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, Brooks came from a big family of 15 children. He drew on another lesson from his mother—cooking—in his Army job, which had him assisting a few white officers, doing their cleaning and cooking. Part of the 91st Engineers Battalion in the Pacific Theater, whose responsibility was to build military infrastructure, Brooks’ unit often didn’t stay anywhere long. He’d occasionally drive the officers he served to nights out on the town when they could get away for an adventure or two. But even that job didn’t keep him from carrying a rifle everywhere he went.
“I had to keep it with me,” he says. “And I was glad I did. I didn’t want to be out there shooting at people because they’d be shooting at me, and they might have got lucky and hit.”
Brooks says he was treated “better” by white Americans when he returned from the war, but it would take nearly two decades before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
The father of five children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren, Brooks worked for many years as a forklift operator before retiring in his seventies. For years he avoided discussing his experiences in the war, sharing little of his story with his children as they grew up.
His daughter, Vanessa Brooks, who cares for him, says the first time she started hearing his stories was about five years ago when the World War II Museum began hosting annual birthday parties for him in New Orleans, where he now lives. But he still shies away from his family’s questions about his war years.
“I had some good times and I had some bad times,” Brooks says. “I just tried to put all the good ones and the bad ones together and tried to forget about all of them.”
Brooks says his military years taught him to straighten up, so he did his best to eat right and stay healthy. He never enjoyed the taste of alcohol and the way liquor burned his throat. “I don't like hurting my body,” he says. (These are the foods to live by for a long life.)
In 2005, Brooks lost his wife, Leona, to Hurricane Katrina. She died shortly after the couple was evacuated by helicopter from their home. “Hurricane Katrina took everything I owned, washed away everything,” he said last year.
Still, Brooks is upbeat. He enjoys spending warm days on his daughter’s front porch in Central City, a neighborhood at the heart of New Orleans. It’s not uncommon to hear Mardi Gras Indians singing, or watch a brass band-led second-line parade go by on Sundays.
Brooks uses his walker to head out of his bedroom—bedecked in the black and gold colors of the New Orleans Saints—to chat with the children at the daycare next door. At 110, he says, his key to a good life is straightforward: “Serve God, and be nice to people.”