Richard Arvin Overton’s diet and smoking habits would have had health experts believing he wasn’t long for this world.
Mr. Overton smoked cigars daily, a habit he picked up as a teenager while growing up in St. Mary’s in Bastrop County, Texas. He was born there on May 11, 1906, to Gentry Overton, Sr., and Elizabeth Franklin Overton Waters.
He spiked his coffee with whiskey and sometimes he drank whiskey without it. He also ate ice cream every day. “I eat ice cream every night because it makes me happy,” he said.
He obviously had good genes, because Overton, who lived in Austin, Texas, died December 27 in a rehabilitation center. He was 112 years and 230 days old, making him the country’s oldest World War 2 veteran, and the third oldest man in the world. He had been hospitalized in St. David’s Medical Center in his hometown for more than a week before he died of pneumonia in the rehab center.
Mr. Overton joined the Army on September 3, 1940, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, more than a year before the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, which President Franklin Roosevelt described as a “day that will live in infamy.” As a member of the1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion for colored or Negro troops, Mr. Overton was in Pearl Harbor when ships were exploding and burning from the bombing.
A book has been written about the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, but it is no longer in print. He served in Guam, Palau, Iwo Jima and Hawaii. Mr. Overton said he ducked bullets as he dragged bodies from the battle grounds. “It was the grace of God I survived,” he said.
He won eight awards, including the Expert Rifle Marksmanship Badge before he was honorably discharged in 1945 as Technician Fifth Grade. After his discharge, he worked at a furniture store. Later, he went to work in the state treasurer’s office when future Texas Governor Ann Richards ran the office.
After he retired from state government, Mr. Overton sat on the front porch of the home that he built and lived in for 72 years. He always wore his blue World II Veterans baseball cap. That’s not all he did. At 107, he still drove.
The house is located on Richard Overton Avenue, which was named in his honor on his 111th birthday. He would talk and wave to neighbors as they walked by.
In 2013, President Barack Obama honored Overton at the White House. President Obama said Americans did not appreciated what Overton had done. He returned to a segregated country. The City of Austin used zoning laws o force blacks to live in certain neighborhoods. When a neighborhood was mostly black, Austin officials refused to provide basic services. Many roads in black neighborhoods weren’t paved, according to the book “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein.
In 2016, a documentary film was made about his life. He was married twice but he did not have any children.
A funeral service will be celebrated on January 12 at Shoreline Church in Austin.