Richard Overton, 107, arrives at Washington's Reagan National Airport Sunday. Overton is set to meet with President Obama on Monday.(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON - Last May, when he was in town with a veterans' group touring the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the World War II Memorial, Richard Overton wondered out loud what it would take to meet President Obama.
The president was out of town that day, but in Overton's case, all it took to arrange the meeting was a phone call and another trip back to the nation's capital.
Richard Overton is not just any veteran. At 107, he's believed to be the oldest known American veteran of World War II.
A member of the Army's 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion, Overton was in his 30s when he volunteered for service in 1942 and saw combat while "island hopping" in the Pacific with an all-black unit, says Allen Bergeron, chairman of Honor Flight Austin, the Texas group that brings local veterans to Washington to tour the monuments. It was Bergeron's group that arranged for Overton's return trip to Washington.
On Monday, nearly 70 years after he returned from the Pacific, he'll meet President Obama at the White House for breakfast before accompanying the president to Arlington National Cemetery for a Veterans Day ceremony, Bergeron said.
"War's nothing to be into," Overton said during a brief interview Sunday. "You don't want to go into the war if you don't have to. But I had to go. I enjoyed it after I'd went and come back, but I didn't enjoy it when was over there. I had to do things I didn't want to do."
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell calls Overton "a regular guy and an extraordinary gentleman. His story is the story of veterans everywhere who leave their peaceful lives to fight in far-off lands for our future."
On Sunday afternoon at Reagan National Airport, Overton got a hero's reception when airport personnel announced his arrival. The crowd surprised Overton, sitting in a wheelchair, who said, "I didn't think I was worth that much."
Still living in the house he built when he returned from the war, Overton has been a widower for the past 22 years. He still starts his day each morning with "a tablespoon" of whiskey in his coffee and still smokes a dozen cigars a day, two indulgences that he says are the secret to his longevity.
Beside him for the trip was his "lady friend," as he calls her, 89-year-old Earlene Love, who quietly counseled him through a brief interview before a small group from Austin whisked him away to his hotel.
Asked how it feels to be meeting the President on Monday, Overton quips, "I ain't met him."
Asked what he'd tell Obama, Overton says, "Whatever he asks me."
And if the President asks Overton to talk first? "I'll just keep my mouth shut - I wouldn't know what to tell him. I've never thought of that. For one thing, I'd talk about (how) we're proud to have him. I wish him good luck all the way through. We have to pray for him. We have to pray for him and help him because we all need help."