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Richard Overton, 107, arrives at Washington's Reagan National Airport Sunday. Overton is set to meet with President Obama on Monday. (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 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 Obama to Arlington National Cemetery for a Veterans Day ceremony, Bergeron said.
"War's nothing to be into," Overton said 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 I was over there."
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 at Reagan National Airport, Overton got a hero's reception when airport personnel announced his arrival.
Still living in the house he built after the war, Overton has been a widower for 22 years. He starts each morning with "a tablespoon" of whiskey in his coffee and still smokes a dozen cigars a day, two indulgences he says are the secret to his longevity.