For his first 107 years, Richard Overton lived in relative anonymity. A World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific, he could usually be found post-retirement on the porch of his Austin, Texas, home, smoking cigars and chatting up his extensive circle of family and friends. Then, in 2013, he visited Washington, D.C., and was referred to in the media as the oldest living U.S. veteran. (In actuality, that would not become true until 2016.)
Suddenly, Overton was an in-demand celebrity. Texas Governor Rick Perry showed up at his door bearing whiskey. President Barack Obama invited him to the White House. The San Antonio Spurs gave him a number 110 jersey (his age at the time) and brought him onto the court for a standing ovation. And he became a staple at Austin civic events, such as the annual Veterans Day parade.
Meanwhile, strangers began sending him cigars in the mail, calling him on the phone, or coming by the house to thank him for his military service. “He’s very social,” Volma Overton Jr., 69, his second cousin once removed, told HISTORY in 2016. “He’ll spend time talking to everybody and shaking everybody’s hand.”
Under doctor’s orders, his relatives limited his porch time so that he didn't overextend himself. Yet they acknowledge he thrived on the fame. “He kind of lives off all that,” said Overton Jr. “He knows that he has this attention and status around the world.”
In addition to spending several years as the oldest U.S. veteran, Overton was also thought to be the oldest living male in the United States before his death on December 27, 2018, at the age of 112. Though dependent on 24-hour home care at the end, friends and family say his mind remained sharp. At the age of 111, he still walked, and took no regular medication stronger than aspirin. Overton credited “God and cigars” for his longevity, telling HISTORY in 2016 he still smoked about 12 a day, but that he never inhaled.
America's oldest veteran had hardscrabble origins. Descended from slaves who toiled on the Nashville, Tennessee, plantation of Judge John Overton (a close friend to President Andrew Jackson), his newly freed ancestors moved en masse from Tennessee to Texas following the Civil War. Around four decades later, on May 11, 1906, Overton was born outside Austin. At the time, Teddy Roosevelt was president, Albert Einstein had just published his special theory of relativity, and no one had yet heard of the Ford Model T or Titanic. Color television was still a half-century away.
Starting work early, Overton held various odd jobs as a teenager and young adult, including landscaper, cotton picker, home builder, and furniture store employee. He was also an avid hunter. “Richard has been a hustler all his life,” said Overton Jr.. “He’s always working hard.”
Military records show that Overton enlisted in the Army on September 3, 1942, at age 36, nine months after the United States had entered World War II. Serving with the all-black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, he would eventually be shipped off to the Pacific Theater, apparently arriving in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, his unit’s first overseas stop, the day after a series of accidental explosions sunk several ships and killed or wounded hundreds of men. (This incident, which occurred two-and-a-half years after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, would become known as the West Loch disaster.) Overton’s battalion later helped wrest control of Angaur, in the Palau islands, from the Japanese, and also made its way to Guam.
Richard B. Frank, an Asia-Pacific War historian, explained that most African-Americans were forced into service support units during World War II, and that the principal job of Overton’s battalion “would have been the building or maintenance of airfields.” The Library of Congress reported that Overton likewise served on burial detail, as base security, and as a jeep driver for a lieutenant. He saw combat as well, however, and was recognized by the Army for his expert marksmanship with a rifle.
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Though Overton no longer remembered all the details of his service when speaking to HISTORY in 2016, he had no shortage of war stories. He talked of reaching Pearl Harbor as the damaged ships were still smoldering and of participating in a battle so horrific that the water turned red with blood. He recalled enemy snipers in trees and giant flies that sucked the blood of the wounded. “It wasn’t easy, but I got out all right,” Overton said. “I didn’t look the same, but I got out all right.”
After being discharged from the Army at the end of the war, Overton returned to Austin—which was then strictly segregated under Jim Crow laws—and built the house he still lives in. (In spring 2017, the Austin City Council voted to rename his street Richard Overton Avenue.) Originally re-entering the furniture business, he later spent many years at the state treasury department, working for part of that stretch under future Texas Governor Ann Richards.
“She loved him and took care of him,” Overton Jr. said of Richards. He adds that his cousin performed many tasks for the treasury department, his favorite of which involved going to the bank in a golf cart and depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time.
Martin Wilford, 60, a longtime friend and former co-worker of Overton’s, remembered that Overton always kept a second job as well, selling fruit or cutting yards. “He was one of the best guys around the Capitol,” said Wilford, who described Overton as happy-go-lucky and “very generous.”
As the decades went by, Overton, who married twice but never had kids, remained in excellent health. Volma Overton Jr. remembered attending his 95th birthday party and thinking he looked closer to 65. “He moved around fast, talked to everybody,” said Overton Jr. “He was just going, going, going.”
Overton did not gain widespread recognition, however, until coming to the attention of Allen Bergeron, chairman of Honor Flight Austin, a nonprofit that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials built in their honor. “I got his address and drove to his house, and there he was sitting on his front porch with his World War II hat on,” Bergeron recalled.
The two became friends, and in May 2013 Honor Flight Austin brought the then 107-year-old on his first-ever trip to Washington, where, according to Bergeron, he was so blown away by the beauty of the World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials that he started crying.
On the same trip, as they passed by Arlington National Cemetery, Bergeron overheard Overton mumbling to himself, “God bless those soldiers. How come them? How come I came home? Why me?”
By then somewhat of a media sensation, Overton returned to Washington that Veterans Day for breakfast at the White House with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. He also rode in the presidential motorcade to Arlington National Cemetery, where Obama gave a ceremonial speech singling him out for praise. “When the war ended, Richard headed home to Texas, to a nation bitterly divided by race, and his service on the battlefield was not always matched by the respect that he deserved at home,” Obama said. “But this veteran held his head high.”
Thousands of people donated to cover his home care costs, and the Home Depot Foundation and Meals on Wheels Central Texas renovated his house for free after a plug melted into an outlet and nearly caused a fire. He even received air conditioning for the first time. Back at home after a bout with pneumonia in 2016, Overton said, “I’m still living and doing good.” And, with that, he returned to what he liked best: cigars and schmoozing.
This story has been updated to reflect that Richard Overton died on December 27, 2018, at the age of 112, after being hospitalized for pneumonia.
This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here.