AUSTIN - For six decades, Richard Overton and Elmer Hill lived four hours away from each other in Central Texas.
They drove the same highways, crisscrossed the same towns and shouldered the same Texas droughts and freezes, never knowing that they shared a remarkably similar history. Overton and Hill are both 107 years old, both native Texans and both African American veterans of World War II who fought Japanese forces in the Pacific.
They've never met - until now.
On Friday, the two will meet for the first time over plates of barbecue ribs and brisket, bringing together a unique shared past and combined 214 years of life on earth. The meeting was originally scheduled for today, National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, but was postponed after a winter storm left parts of Texas covered in snow and ice.
Overton, who lives in Austin, is considered the oldest living U.S. military veteran in the USA. Hill, who lives in Henderson and is three months younger, is a very close second.
"If he's lived that long, he must be pretty lucky," Hill says. "I'm looking forward to have a chance to meet him and hear his story."
Of the 16 million Americans who served in uniform in World War II, more than 1 million survive, says Nick Mueller, president and chief executive of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. But WWII veterans today tend to be in their 80s and 90s and rarely over 100 years old, he says.
Centenarians are more often equated to World War I veterans, Mueller says. The last known American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, was 110 when he died two years ago.
"It's kind of a miracle to have anyone alive at 107," he says. "But it's a real miracle to have two African American World War II veterans in the same state."
The number of African Americans serving in the U.S. military swelled from less than 4,000 in 1941 to 1.2 million by the end of the war in 1945, Mueller says. The draft was a factor in the increase, but mostly it was the feeling in the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he says.
"With a segregated army, there wasn't a lot of motivation to serve," he says. "But once the country was threatened, African Americans rallied to the flag just like every other American. They wanted to serve their country."
The soldiers and sailors ran supply trucks to the front lines, fought in tank battalions and played a key role in helping to win the war, making Overton and Hill a valuable source of history, Mueller says.
"What these two have is a unique perspective of the African American experience in World War II," he says. "Their stories are certainly significant."
A high school principal in Henderson, Hill was drafted into the Navy in 1942 and served as a gunner aboard the USS Saginaw Bay aircraft carrier. Hill remembers Japanese submarines in waters around the Solomon Islands coming close enough "to give us some trouble" and kamikaze airplanes circling overhead. He remembers orders from the bridge arriving by phone near the anti-aircraft gun he was attached to and relaying them to other sailors. He remembers hitting the deck.
"My job was to get the news from the captain on the bridge to give it to my men on the ship," Hill says. "I survived that without being hurt and I was glad I was."
Overton volunteered for service in 1942. He joined the Army's 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion and was propelled into action in Guam and other spots around the Pacific. There are some things he remembers, like driving trucks full of soldiers and supplies and trees thick with Japanese snipers. A good marksman, he was assigned to escort officers - a job he resented. "I didn't want to be with the officers," he says. "That's the first one they wanted to kill."
Other things he'd rather not talk about, like good friends who were killed or injured in the fighting. "It was tough," Overton says. "There was nothing easy about it."
After the war, Hill returned to being a principal at Henderson Colored High School -- later renamed Hill High, after him, and closed when schools were desegretated. Overton worked at the Texas state capitol as a runner and mailman, working for four governors and countless elected officials.
On Veteran's Day this year, President Obama met with Overton and honored him as the oldest living World War II veteran. Karen Lucas, an executive with Emeritus Senior Living, saw him on TV and immediately thought of Hill, who lives in the company's Henderson facility. A few days later, the meeting was set.
With so many of his friends, family and war buddies gone, Hill says it will be interesting to meet someone who's endured as long as he has.
"It'll be nice to see what we have in common," he says.
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