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Remembering The Oldest Known Veteran In The U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At a church in Austin, Texas, yesterday, friends and family gathered to lay a World War II veteran to rest. Richard Overton was America's oldest military veteran when he died last month at the age of 112. From member station KUT, Nadia Hamdan reports.

NADIA HAMDAN, BYLINE: Roughly 2,000 people are inside the Shoreline Church in North Austin. They are all here to remember Richard Overton, who's believed to have been America's oldest man. Overton, the grandson of a Tennessee slave, was born just east of Austin in May 1906. He volunteered for the Army in his mid-30s and served in the Pacific Theater as part of an all-black engineer aviation battalion. During the three years he served, Overton went to Pearl Harbor, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. When asked about the experience in 2015, Overton told NPR that he was just happy to have made it home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RICHARD OVERTON: I didn't get like some of the others - some got their arms off. Some got their leg off. Some lost their body. Some lost their soul.

HAMDAN: When Overton returned in 1945, he built a home in East Austin and had lived there up until the day he died. Overton was known for his love of whiskey and cigars, two things he often credited for his long life. In fact, he was even buried with a bottle of Maker's Mark gently tucked under his arm and a pack of cigars in his suit pocket. But that's not all he was known for. His cousin Volma Overton Jr. made that clear at the funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLMA OVERTON JR.: Richard had a special gift of sharing his unconditional love with everyone. And that gift of love came back to him tenfold. He was truly loved by so many.

HAMDAN: Texas Governor Greg Abbott was also in attendance and had plenty of praise left for the World War II vet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Richard Overton is a Texas legend.

HAMDAN: Abbott remembered a moment during Overton's 109th birthday that he says represents the man's joyous spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABBOTT: He challenged me to a wheelchair race.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMDAN: Austin Mayor Steve Adler and U.S. Army Gen. John Murray also paid their respects to the veteran. Gen. Murray used his time to remind everyone that Overton's story was not just one of an average soldier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MURRAY: But it's also the story of an African-American soldier in what was unfortunately, at that time, segregated units of the not-so-distant past, overcoming discrimination through professionalism and demonstrated excellence to ultimately right injustices both in uniform and in our society.

HAMDAN: Richard Overton was buried with full military honors in the Texas State Cemetery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OVERTON: I may give out, but I never give up.

HAMDAN: For NPR News, I'm Nadia Hamdan in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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