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America's oldest veteran, known for smoking cigars and drinking whiskey, dies at age 112

Key Points
  • Richard Arvin Overton, America's oldest World War II veteran and the third-oldest man in the world, died Thursday afternoon from pneumonia.
  • He was 112 years old.
  • Overton was the grandson of a slave and grew up in one of America's darkest periods.
  • In his lifetime, he witnessed the repeal of Jim Crow laws, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the election of the first black president of the United States.
Richard Overton in his home in Austin, Texas.
Photo courtesy of Overton family/Wyatt McSpadden

WASHINGTON — Richard Arvin Overton, America's oldest World War II veteran and the third-oldest man in the world, died Thursday afternoon from pneumonia. He was 112 years old.

Overton was born before Henry Ford introduced the Model T, before the Titanic embarked on her doomed maiden voyage and before New Yorkers watched the first ball drop in Times Square.

He was born on May 11, 1906, in Bastrop County, Texas, about an hour outside of Austin. Overton was the grandson of a slave and grew up in one of America's darkest periods. He witnessed the repeal of Jim Crow laws, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the election of the first black president of the United States.

He began his military career with the Army on Sept. 3, 1940, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

In December 1941, he was sent to Hawaii immediately after the devastating surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor. Like the rest of the nation, Overton was thrust into World War II.

He served in the Pacific Theater with the Army's segregated 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion from 1942 to 1945. He held a series of jobs in the military, including burial detail, base security and driver for an officer.

A photograph of Richard Overton in his military uniform is propped up against a folded American flag in his home.
Amanda Macias/CNBC

Last year, over Veteran's Day weekend, CNBC spoke with Overton in his home in Austin, Texas. He wore a peach button-down shirt with brown slacks, a black World War II veteran hat and bulky New Balance tennis shoes.

The supercentenarian, known for smoking Tampa Sweet cigars and lacing his morning coffee with Jack Daniel's, would often joke that these two items were his "best friends."

"These are my best friends since everyone else keeps on leaving me," Overton told CNBC. "I started smoking these cigars since I was 18 years old," he said. "I don't inhale them. All I do is smoke 'em and blow the smoke out. I never swallow the smoke," added Overton, who smoked more than 12 cigars a day.

Within the last two years, Overton fought several bouts of pneumonia, but aside from that, his family said he was in good health.

"Fortunately, Richard isn't in a major need of anything. He only takes a few pills and hasn't really had a major health problem," Overton's cousin, Volma, said last year.

"I've got my good health, and as long as I have my good health I'll keep dancing," Overton said.