During WWII, African-American soldiers were segregated into black units under the command of white officers. One of these soldiers was Lawrence Brooks, who served with the 91st Engineer Battalion in the Pacific Theater. As an engineer, he and his comrades built vital airstrips, roads, and bridges in places like New Guinea and the Philippines. On September 12, 2020, Brooks, the oldest known living WWII veteran, turned an incredible 111 years old.
Brooks lowers his mask and raises a drink to his guests (National World War II Museum)
For the past six years, the New Orleans native has celebrated his birthday at the National World War II Museum. The tradition was the result of a chance meeting between Brooks and Lee Crean, the father of the museum’s vice president for education and access at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, if he’s a World War II vet who’s that old, we need to do something,'” Crean said.
Because of the coronavirus, Brooks was unable to celebrate his birthday at the museum this year. Instead, the museum arranged for the celebration to be brought to him. The museum’s vice president, Peter Crean, put out a public request for people to mail in birthday cards for Brooks. Though letters were still arriving, museum staff arrived at Brooks’ house on his birthday with a carload of mail. Crean personally hauled another two bins of mail addressed to the WWII vet. As of Brooks’ birthday, a total of 9,768 cards, letters, and packages have arrived from all 50 states, plus Guam, the Virgin Islands, and five other countries.
The festivities also included entertainment. The Victory Belles, a trio of 1940s-themed singers, performed “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the sidewalk in front of Brooks’ home as he danced and sang along on his front porch. Up above, a squadron of four WWII-era aircraft piloted by the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team flew low and in tight formation over Brooks’ home. Brooks’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren also handed out gift bags for guests who drove by the home in the socially-distanced car parade.
Brooks, the Victory Belles, and guests look on as the aerobatic team conducts their flyover (National World War II Museum)
From his front porch, Brooks smiled through his face mask and waved at the guests. “God bless all of you. Every one of you,” he said. Brooks is the father of five children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren. When asked by National Geographic, Brooks said that his key to a good life is, “Serve God, and be nice to people.”