The following is a guest post by Christy Chason, liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).
When our friends at the American Red Cross of Greater Texas told me they were sending us the interview of Richard Arvine Overton, who is thought to be the oldest living American war veteran, I got very excited, mainly because I had heard of him before. I had read about him in news articles, and heard reports that he was still active—does yard work, smokes cigars, drinks whiskey and drives his truck around town. I knew that his story would be special.
At an astounding 109 years old, Overton was born in 1906 in Texas, and served in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1945 as part of the U.S. Army’s first all-African American 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion. While there, he served on burial detail, as base security and as a jeep driver for a Lieutenant.
When we received the interview, I immediately gave it a listen. What first struck me was how vividly he recalled even the smallest of details—how a “canteen of water would have to last you three or four days,” or how you “never put a rock in front of a foxhole, you put a pile of dirt.” It wasn’t until I got about halfway through the interview that things took a somber turn.
When describing how an entire company got wiped out, Overton recalled,
In Iwo Jima, the water turned to blood.
That line stayed with me. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must have been like. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my grandfather who was on the shores of Normandy, a place that also saw the oceans turn to blood. As much as I tried to visualize the scene, my mind could only recall bits of film I had seen or literature I had read. I realized that I would never really know what that was like. I also realized how incredibly lucky we are to have someone like Overton to describe these events so that we may better understand the realities of war.
Despite living through the horrors of war, he says towards the end of the interview,
I lived a good life.
He turns 110 on May 11th. Here’s hoping he sees even more good years.