MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Despite the swelling crowd that milled about, silence descended on the baggage claim area of Memphis International Airport this past Thursday as the most famous passenger on Flight 511 sat in a wheelchair posing for photos with strangers and accepting handshakes from children born a full century after he was.
Richard Overton may not have expected the reception, but he was hardly fazed by it.
“I went into the Army,” he said in a soft voice. “This ain’t nothin’.”
Overton was indeed in the Army, having served in World War II when he was almost middle-aged. Now, at age 111, he’s believed to be America’s oldest veteran of the war.
Overton flew from his native Texas to visit Memphis, a city with which he has deep ties. His grandfather was born a slave at Travellers Rest, the Nashville-area plantation of John Overton, one of the founders of Memphis, said Roscoe Overton, a distant cousin of Richard’s. The family took the Overton name after leaving the plantation, he said.
Overton is in town for a documentary being produced by local filmmaker Genene Walker. “He has a compelling narrative, and I wanted to explore it,” Walker said.
He was scheduled to serve as honorary duckmaster at The Peabody this past Friday, after which was to be honored in a ceremony in Veterans Plaza in Overton Park.
After that, Overton was to travel to Nashville for a family reunion this weekend.
His trip was sponsored by Forever Young Senior Veterans and The Peabody.
Daniel Hight, executive director of the Collierville-based Forever Young, said his group works to fulfill the wishes of veterans. “I know it had been one of his dreams to learn more about his ancestry,” he said.
The welcome for Overton included a water-cannon salute from a firetruck on the tarmac and an escort by a flag-bearing contingent from the group Patriot Guard Riders.
“He had no idea all this was going on,” said Volma Overton, a third cousin who traveled with Overton.
James Griffin, 70, a distant cousin living in Memphis, said there aren’t many relatives of Overton left in the city.
Overton enlisted in 1940, more than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, at age 34, Walker said.
During the war, he served in a segregated unit in the Pacific theater, earning an expert rifle marksmanship badge among other honors during his five years of service. “I don’t like to talk about it,” he said of his wartime experiences.
But a caretaker, Martin Wilford, said Overton remains “real sharp.”
Asked about the secret to his longevity, Overton had a simple answer: “Keep a-going.”