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America’s oldest WWII veterans met in Austin

Oldest WWII veterans
Oldest WWII veterans
Reuters/Jan Herskovitz

It’s not every day a centenarian meets someone who is older than him/her. However, that is exactly what happened for 107 year old Elmer Hill when he was introduced to Richard Overton at a senior center in Austin, Texas on December 12, 2013. Overton, also 107, is three months older than Hill. The US Department of Veterans Affairs believes these two men to be the country’s oldest living World War II veterans.

Though this was the first time the two men ever met, their life paths have been very similar. Growing up in the segregated South, following World War II, they both settled in Texas, approximately 220 miles apart.

Richard Arvine Overton was born on May 11, 1906 in Bastrop County, Texas. During the early months of World War II, he enlisted in the US Army’s 188th Aviation Engineering Battalion and served until October 1945.

Still possessing a sharp mind and quick wit, Overton makes his home in East Austin, Texas. He enjoyed a good cigar as he waited outside the senior center in the chilly rain for his new friend to arrive. Joking with those nearby, Overton said he hoped Hill would bring a bottle of whiskey with him, something Overton enjoys a splash of in his morning coffee.

Born on August 6, 1906, Elmer Hill lives in the small East Texas town of Henderson where he is a well-known fixture in the community. Now a resident of the Emeritus Senior Living Center, the retired school principal walks a mile a day. The last of 12 brothers, he remembers World War II like it happened yesterday. After high school, he put himself through college and later became the principal of Henderson Negro High School. In 1942, Hill was drafted with orders for the USS Saginaw Bay. There he served as a cook and on the gun crew whose job it was to watch for Japanese kamikaze planes.

At the time the two veterans were drafted in 1942, the military was still segregated. Blacks were assigned to all-black units and normally relegated to non-combat duties. As the war continued and casualty rates began to take a heavy toll, this forced the black troops into combat, with the numbers spiking in 1945.

Overton volunteered for the Army and was part of the 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion. He arrived at Pearl Harbor just after the attack. On Veterans Day 2013 (November 11), Overton was a White House guest and met President Obama. Later that day the president spoke at the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. During his speech, Obama stated, “He (Overton) was there at Pearl Harbor when the battleships were still smoldering. He was there at Okinawa. He was there at Iwo Jima.” Obama’s words would have the listener believing Overton saw action in each of these locations.

A check of Overton’s military records, however, shows he enlisted on September 24, 1942, a full 10 months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Overton’s military photo shows him dressed in the uniform of the Army Air Forces. Though the AAF did participate in the Battle of Okinawa, it was only in the role of bombing the island. They never saw action on the ground. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, none of the black units participated.

On November 11, 2013, Hill had the opportunity to visit Washington, D. C. and the WWII Memorial as a passenger on Honor Flight Austin. He also met President Obama. During the meeting, the president stated, “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. But this veteran held his head high.”

In 2013, Elmer attended a Veterans Day ceremony at the Henderson V.F.W. While he waited with other veterans for the bus to return him home, he reflected back on the event. Elmer believes the ceremonies are not so much for individuals like him, but instead to honor those who gave their lives during the various conflicts. “It didn’t happen to me, but a lot of them didn’t have a chance to come back. I didn’t get hurt. I went in all right and I cam out all right I think.

Elmer came out right enough that the centenarian still mows his own yard every Tuesday, though he no longer lives in the house on Van Buren Street. Desiring not to worry his family, he moved into an assisted living center. “I’m not old. I’ve just been here a long time. The Lord has blessed me, and now my only job is to eat and sleep.

Though the two centenarians have a lot in common, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their thoughts on long life. Overton attributes his long life to “smoking cigars and drinking whiskey-stiffened coffee.” Hill, on the other hand, gives credit to living right and trusting in God.

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