AUSTIN, Texas — When 107-year-old World War II veteran Elmer Hill looked across the table at Richard Overton, he could hardly believe there was a living veteran older than him — even if only by a few months.
Hill met fellow centenarian Overton, thought to be the oldest living U.S. World War Two veteran, for the first time on Friday over lunch at an Austin senior citizens center, where they swapped war stories and longevity tips.
“He’s 107? I better move my (birthday) up a little bit,” Hill told reporters at the meeting arranged by the center. “I am not that old. I have just been here a long time.”
Overton is about three months older than Hill and even though they had never met before, both had traveled along similar paths.
Both men grew up in the segregated South. Both passed through Hawaii on their way to combat duty in the Pacific, where they served in segregated units. After the war, they both settled down in Texas, about 220 miles apart.
Overton, a volunteer, served in the Army’s 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion, an all-black unit that saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific island-hopping campaign.
“Some of the things in the Army stay with you, and you don’t want to forget, but you don’t want to tell them either,” Overton said.
Hill was drafted into the Navy and his ship had to evade Japanese submarines and air attacks. When he returned home, he became principal of a segregated school.
Both men try to keep active. Overton says a splash of whisky in his morning coffee and a few cigars have helped him live as long as he has.
Last month, on Veterans Day, Overton met President Barack Obama, and later told relatives he never thought he would live long enough to see an African-American leading the country.
According to the White House, Obama said at the time: “When the war ended, Richard headed home to Texas to a nation bitterly divided by race. And his service on the battlefield was not always matched by the respect that he deserved at home. But this veteran held his head high.”
Hill will visit Washington this weekend on a trip organized by Honor Flight Austin, which takes World War Two veterans to see the national memorial dedicated to American servicemen.
Hill’s daughter, Audrey Young, said her father was happy to see the United States change so much in his lifetime and was moved when Americans elected a black man to the White House.
“Everything has come full circle. He was there when he had colored water fountains and ‘white entry’ only. He encountered a lot of things he never talked to us about,” Young said.
“That is one reason why I feel it would be very important if he were to meet the president,” she said.