Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111

Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111
© CBS This Morning

The Defense Department on Saturday celebrated the 111th birthday of Lawrence Brooks, the oldest known living U.S. veteran from World War II.

“I salute your service and your lifetime of determination,” Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May MORE wrote on Twitter.

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Of the 16 million U.S. veterans who served, about 300,000 are still alive today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Louisiana native was stationed with the Army as part of the predominately African American 91st Engineers Battalion in the Pacific Theater. He served in Australia, New Guinea and then the Philippines.

Brooks served before the military was formally desegregated in 1948 and spoke with National Geographic in May about the racism and hostility he faced in the service, 75 years after the end of the war. 

“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people,” Brooks said. “I wondered about that. That’s what worried me so much. Why?”

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Rob Citino, a senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told National Geographic that roughly 1.2 million African Americans wore a military uniform and they were “often being 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.”

Brooks said that every time he thinks about the inequalities he and fellow Black service members faced, “I’d get angry, so the best thing I’d do is just leave it go.”

He returned to New Orleans and worked as a forklift operator for years before retiring in his 1970s. Brooks lost his wife, Leona, in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina shortly after the couple was evacuated by helicopter from their home. 

“Hurricane Katrina took everything I owned, washed away everything,” he told CBS This Morning last year. 

Brooks is the father of five children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren, according to National Geographic.

He told the magazine that his key to a good life is: “Serve God, and be nice to people.”