AUSTIN – Richard Overton, believed to be the oldest living United States veteran at 107, accepted a box of cigars and a standing ovation Thursday with a humble demeanor and a beaming smile.
More than 100 people packed a conference room at the Stephen F. Austin building in downtown Austin to attend a pre-Veterans Day ceremony in Austin honoring Overton and Ken Wallingford, who spent 10 months in a tiger cage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“I’ve gotten so many letters and so many thank yous and I enjoy every bit of it, but I’m still going to enjoy some more,” said Overton, who is planning a visit with President Barack Obama next week in Washington, D.C.
Overton, identified by the General Land Office as the nation’s oldest veteran, was born in Bastrop County. He served in the Army during World War II in the South Pacific and now lives in Austin. He sold furniture in Austin after the war and later worked for the state Treasurer’s Office.
He drives and walks without a cane. During a television interview in March, he told a reporter that he doesn’t take medicine, smokes cigars every day and takes whiskey in his morning coffee. The key to living to his age, he said, is simply “staying out of trouble.”
The day’s ceremony, sponsored by the General Land Office, also recognized Wallingford, who shared his experience in captivity in the Cambodian jungle as the audience listened in amazement.
The former Army sniper, now 65, alternately laughed and became emotional as he told the story of his imprisonment and triumphant return home.
“As we look forward to Veterans Day I hope each and every one of us can remember those who have served, and importantly, those who serve today,” said Wallingford, who is veterans liaison for the Veterans Land Board.
Wallingford brought a food and water bowl, sandals, pajamas and photos from his imprisonment in April 1972 to being set free in February 1973. His voiced cracked as he described his return to the United States.
“We weren’t going to leave without you guys,” Wallingford remembered hearing in the Army helicopter on his way out.
President Lyndon B. Johnson offered Wallingford and the other POWs who returned with him the presidential suite and staff of the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he said.
Bill McLemore, deputy commissioner for the Veterans Land Board and a retired Army colonel, served with Wallingford. “Most veterans are just looking to have someone reaffirm that what they’ve done was an honorable thing to do,” McLemore said.