To hear Richard Overton tell it, he never thought he "would be that important."
Born in Bastrop County, Texas, in 1906, by the time Overton celebrated his 109th birthday on May 11 of this year, he had already gotten used to his celebrity as America's oldest living combat veteran.
Having served in the Pacific theater during World War II from 1942 to 1945, Overton was part of the all-black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, fighting in places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. While he saw his share of enemy fire, he says "didn't get a scratch," and left the service after attaining the rank of Sergeant. While his role in the war has brought him fame, the memories of battle have been a burden.
“War’s nothing to be into,” Overton told USA Today in 2013. “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 I was over there. I had to do things I didn’t want to do.”
As an ambassador for the memory of those who served, Overton has proven himself exemplary. In that role, the Austin, Texas, native has been regularly praised by politicians of both parties, many of whom have come to pay tribute to him and listen to his stories of war.
When he was the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry met with Overton on Memorial Day in 2013.
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"Coming over here and seeing the oldest veteran in the world. That's pretty cool," said Perry.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz honored Overton a few months later at the opening of a VA clinic in Austin on August 22, 2013.
President Barack Obama invited Overton to the White House on Veterans Day, and honored him at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
"He was there at Pearl Harbor when the battleships were still smoldering. He was there at Okinawa. He was there at Iwo Jima, where he said, 'I only got out of there by the grace of God,'" Obama said of Overton.
Texas Senator John Cornyn visited Overton at his Austin home on his 109th birthday. "Thank you for being a true demonstration of strength and character, and may God bless you as you celebrate your 109th birthday in Austin today!" Cornyn wrote on his Facebook page.
So did current Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who showed up with a cake. “The least we could do is give him a cake," Abbott told the San Antonio Express-News. "I guess each candle stands for about 38 years or so.”
What are Overton's secrets for longevity? It's quite a list. “I smoke at least 12 Tampa Sweet cigars a day,” Overton told the Wall Street Journal,adding that he's smoked them since he was 18.
"Whiskey's a good medicine. It keeps your muscles tender," he told Fox News.
"I also stay busy around the yards, I trim trees, help with the horses. The driveways get dirty, so I clean them. I do something to keep myself moving," Overton told Fox affiliate KTBC in 2013. " I don’t watch television.”
Lastly, Overton has learned to accept and enjoy his fame.
“I can sit on my porch sometimes and 10 people will come by and want to stop and take my picture," he told the Journal.
"I've gotten so many letters and so many thank yous and I enjoy every bit of it, but I'm still going to enjoy some more," Overton told the Houston Chronicle in 2013.
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