Veterans Day is a chance for the nation to give thanks for the people who have served in the armed forces. For one Manhattan man, it holds a special significance.
John Brooks Jr. is a World War II veteran and a D-Day participant.
“I appreciate growing up about 70 years longer than all those other fellas who lost their lives that day,” he said of the June 6, 1944, landings.
Born and raised in Green, Brooks, who is 90, served in the Navy from 1941 to 1946 as a machinist and deep sea diver. “Now they call us SEALs,” he said. “We called it underwater demolition team.”
Brooks was working as a carpenter’s apprentice at Fort Riley before he was drafted. “Uncle Sam says, ‘Come along, buddy. It’s draft time,’” he said. “I was soon to turn 18.”
His emotions when he was called to service were similar to the vast majority of men drafted around that time. “I didn’t care,” he said. “I kind of wanted to get in. I enjoyed the service. You grew up in a hurry in the military.”
Brooks’ job was to pick up mines and make way for rangers and scouts. This involved working at night to prepare for the morning’s activities.
“We could see because we trained at night,” he said. “We took most of our training in Northern Scotland in the mountains.”
When D-Day arrived, Brooks said the men were ready to do their mission. “We just accepted it,” he said. “We were trained to be rough and rugged.”
Brooks said the troops faced 10- to 16-inch high beams planted 8 feet apart in cement, which would make it hard for vehicles to get through without being blasted away. “Hitler’s generals said we would never get our tanks to shore on account of obstacles,” he said.
The obstacles needed to be blown up and the mines needed to be removed in order to give the troops a chance.
Brooks said 96 men went ashore for this mission and only 16 made it back out. “It was a terrible morning,” he said. “We experienced quite an ordeal.”
He said it was a rough tide as the men were preparing the area. He was blown about 50 feet while picking up mines, knocking him out briefly. The incident took away his hearing ability, but his partner experienced a worse fate. “The last I’d seen, he was going back out to sea on the surf,” Brooks said.
Despite his inability to hear, Brooks went back to sea after a brief return to Green. He was taught sign language and carried a tablet, so others could understand him. His duties involved driving his officer around, and he also performed machinist work on the ship.
Brooks had another brush with death on April 2, 1945 after a mission in Okinawa. “You don’t forget them things,” Brooks said of the date.
Brooks came back to the ship that afternoon to do engine room duty. He described the ship as being tilted with the lights going out. A Japanese two-engine plane known as a “Betty” carrying two 500-pound bombs had hit the bridge in a suicide attack.
“It’s terrible being in a silent world,” he said. “They would drop a bomb and I wouldn’t hear it.”
That night, 166 men lost their lives, but Brooks escaped after exiting with others. Just like his last brush with death, Brooks went back to work, transferring to a similar ship. It was hit the next night, albeit not as badly.
Once the war was over, Brooks said he was kicked out of the Navy because he couldn’t hear. “I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “So I had to go to the farm, so I didn’t have to talk to people.”
Brooks bought an outdoor power shop after the farm was sold, but he mostly worked in the back unless someone knew sign language.
In 1982, 38 years after losing his hearing, a doctor in Topeka began procedures to put hearing devices in Brooks’s ears. Eventually 50 percent of his hearing was restored.
Brooks had his hearing returned to him, but the experience of the war still bothered him. He said he spent 40 years having trouble sleeping at night. He would tell his wife he thought somebody was trying to come through the window. Eventually, he had to sleep in a different room.
One day, Brooks said his war experiences suddenly stopped bothering him at night. “It was really hell,” he said. “Nobody but me will understand that.”
Today, Brooks spends time displaying his model ships, doing projects in his wood shop and giving speeches about his time in WWII. “I gotta do something,” he said. “I can’t sit and watch TV. That’s too boring.”
Brooks knows there are not many WWII survivors left. He said he thinks about all the boys who didn’t get to live the rest of their lives after the war like he did. “I had cancer once and whipped that,” he said. “Somebody’s looking out for me, I tell you.”