Louisiana’s Lawrence Brooks, aged 112, smiled as his daughter, Vanessa, tenderly placed his new garrison cap on his head in the ICU bed. She says it’s what her father, the world’s oldest living World War II veteran, wanted most — a new Army uniform to replace the original he’d lost 16 years ago in Hurricane Katrina.
Brooks was presented with an authentic reproduction World War II uniform and his old unit’s badge during a recent short stay in the New Orleans Veterans Administration hospital at the beginning of November. Brooks’ health is declining rapidly and he is adamant about spending his remaining days at his home with family. God-willing, he says he plans to wear his khakis this Veterans Day.
“This is it,” said Brooks. “This is the uniform I wore in Australia.”
Brooks immediately recognized the components of the summer service uniform he wore while serving in the Pacific theater. He was back at his house in New Orleans on Nov. 4, smiling and fondling his cap before placing it on his head. He also held the insignia from the 91st Engineer Battalion, the predominantly African American unit in which Brooks served in Australia, Papua, and the Philippines.
Brooks says he has never forgotten his unit’s motto, and repeats it aloud, “acts, not words.” For historians, the battalion was re-designated the 91st Engineer General Service Regiment late in the summer of 1942. According to Richard W. Stewart, the army’s former chief of military history, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for service in Papua and the Meritorious Unit Commendation in the Asiatic-Pacific theater.
Unfortunately, both ribbons were lost in the floodwaters of the 2005 storm. Nevertheless, they are decorations Brooks would like to have in his possession again.
A framed portrait of Brooks is all that remains from his time in the service. Brooks never rose above the rank of private first class, but in the photograph taken in 1943, he has several stripes on his sleeve. The “Ike” jacket is also missing regulation pins and insignia. Asked about the mystery of the uniform’s inconsistencies, Brooks dissolves into laughter.
“That was the officer’s coat,” said Brooks. “The officers’ club had a big party. I had to wear the officer’s uniform to get in the club. They wanted to sneak me in.”
Brooks, the son of Louisiana farmers and one of 15 children, was born in 1909, just north of Baton Rouge in Norwood. He grew up outside of Stephenson, Miss., a small sawmill town where his family moved to work during the depression.
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The supercentenarian was drafted and entered the army in 1940, serving in both Louisiana and Texas. He participated in the famed Louisiana Maneuvers, where 400,000 soldiers converged on the state for readiness exercises in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland and France.
Brooks completed his obligatory one-year service, was discharged, and back at work in New Orleans in November of 1941. A few weeks later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he returned to the army.
“There was no question,” said Brooks in one of his many oral history interviews. “They just came right back and got me again.”
He says he was first sent to train at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss., where he joined the 91st Engineer Battalion, a unit comprised of 1,193 Black enlisted soldiers and 25 white officers, according to the Oz At War website. He says from there that his journey to the South Pacific began with a stop in Pennsylvania.
“Indiantown Gap is where I got my inoculations before we left,” said Brooks.
In March of 1942, Brooks eventually found himself in New York harbor heading to war aboard a converted ocean liner. He says he sailed on the Queen Mary, the troop carrier dubbed the “Grey Ghost” due to her agility and speed in outrunning enemy submarines. Brooks says the voyage lasted close to a month amid a zig-zag course dodging submarines. Their destination was Queensland, Australia, a key defensive area in the war against Japan.
His unit arrived in Brisbane in early April and ended their journey in Townsville, Australia, only a month prior to a historic American military racial uprising. On May 22, 1942, members of the 96th Engineer Battalion — the other predominantly black engineer battalion — laid siege against racially motivated ill-treatment by several of their white officers.
For several hours, an insurrection occurred in nearby Kelso, where the unit was building an airfield. African-American soldiers from the 96th stormed the armory, and fired machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons into the tents of their white officers. Afterward, the incident, now referred to as the Townsville Mutiny, was censored and buried by a representative of the Department of the Navy who was scouting the area, Lyndon B. Johnson. As a result, the incident went unreported for 70 years. However, Australian Army documents substantiate the event, along with papers uncovered in Johnson’s presidential library in 2012.
“One of the biggest stories of the war which can’t be written, which should be written, is the mutiny among negro troops which took place in Townsville,” wrote American journalist Robert Sherrod about the siege. The report was confiscated by Johnson.
Brooks’ unit was in a rural area south of town building airstrips, either Woodstock or Giru, about an hour away from the mutiny when it occurred, but he says he has no knowledge or memory of it. Either that or he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Instead, Brooks reminisces about the Australian people’s acceptance of the 9,000 African American soldiers who served there during the war. He speaks of the lack of color barriers he experienced while serving there.
“They were nice people, the Australians,” said Brooks. “They were wonderful.”
Brooks traveled to Brisbane and numerous small coastal towns and islands in Queensland. He says there was no segregation in the places he visited. He talks about his close relationship with a white woman and her family in Townsville.
“I had a lady friend there; she had a hotel and a bar,” said Brooks. “I used to go to her father’s place [house] and helped deliver liquor to the hotel.”
Brooks says he had full run of the establishment and also frequented other restaurants, bars, and hotels without racial restrictions.
“That’s what I didn’t understand,” said Brooks, still amazed at what he encountered. “The Australians treated us like our own people treated us.”
Townsville’s historian Ray Holyoak initially discovered and researched the story.
“These men attended Townsville’s dance halls, hotels and cinemas and mixed freely with the population, freedom unheard of in southern US states,” said Holyoak in the Townsville Bulletin.
Brooks, like most in his battalion, didn’t see combat. Instead, he says he was a driver, valet, and cook for three officers, two lieutenants, and a captain. He no longer remembers their names — only that one was from New York.
He tells of chauffeuring his officers around Queensland and to the officer’s club in Townsville in his weapons carrier, or as he calls it, “a big ole Army car.” The war offices were located in town, 40 minutes north of the unit’s various camps. Because of his “batman” position, he had the unusual freedom to explore the area while his commanding officers were in town.
When asked about any racial issues with his officers, he says none occurred.
“They were good to me,” said Brooks. “I never had any problems.”
He cooked their meals at the joint mess hall and delivered them back to their camp. The white officers ate separately from the black soldiers.
“We had our tents, and the whites had their tents,” said Brooks. “They were next to each other, like next door.”
The unit built numerous frame buildings, Quonset huts, roads, hospitals, housing, shops, and recreation centers. Brooks tells of working on Horn Island, Papua-New Guinea, and the Philippines.
“We built bridges, roads, and airstrips,” said Brooks in a previous oral history interview describing his unit. “That was our job.”
He remembers digging and diving into foxholes on numerous occasions when the Japanese strafed his unit near Townsville and New Guinea. One of his favorite anecdotes is about Thursday Island.
“We was on Horns Island, and the Japanese would come and drop bombs on us,” said Brooks. “They had a body of water about the size of the lake (Lake Pontchartrain) between us and Thursday Island.”
Brooks says his unit rowed small boats over to the island just after nightfall to avoid the air raids. His story is that the enemy wouldn’t strafe or bomb the island because it was the location of a sacred Japanese graveyard.
“We was sneaking over there at night,” said Brooks, who can’t stop laughing as he tells the story. “We rowed pretty fast. They didn’t shoot us … because they couldn’t see us.”
A favorite anecdote occurred while Brooks was island hopping between Australian territories in a C-47. He says they lost an engine and were flying low. The navigator walked back into the fuselage and started dumping bales of barbed wire to lighten the load. Brooks said that he got up and headed to the cockpit before being stopped. He laughs when he retells the response he gave his superior.
“My sergeant wanted to know where I was going,” said Brooks, rumbling with laughter. “I said, the only two parachutes on this plane are up there. If they jump out, I’m grabbing onto one of them.”
It’s unclear from his present laughter if he was a cutup back then or if he is laughing at the folly of a younger man’s plan.
Brooks says his unit left the South Pacific in 1944 and that eventually he separated from service in 1945.
Most of his anecdotes ring with laugher. One gets the impression that there is still much to tell, but Brooks decided to focus on the positive long ago. If he experienced bad times in the military, he’s not inclined to share them.
When asked what — if any — he would like his legacy to be, his thoughts returned to the war.
“I would like to be remembered as a strong man,” said Brooks, “a good soldier.”
Brooks, a local celebrity in New Orleans, usually celebrates his birthday at a celebratory shindig at the National World War II Museum. He has received numerous gifts and more than 10,000 birthday cards in recognition of his service.
But in 2021, due to the pandemic, the party was brought to his house in the form of drive-by. Only weeks ago on Sept. 12, Brooks danced on his porch serenaded by the museum’s singing trio, the Victory Belles, while a military flyover banked down his street. But he’s faltering now, and his daughter says he can no longer walk. She says she plans to bury him in his uniform but is still hopeful that day is a long way off.
Kristine Froeba is a staff writer with Military Times