Cletis Odell Overton saw his share of horror as a young man, but he never let those experiences affect his reationships with others.
Overton, who died Monday at 95 at his home in Malvern, is being remembered by friends and family as a World War II hero who survived the Bataan Death March, years of abuse in prison and labor camps and the 1944 sinking of the Shinyo Maru in the Phillipines, which killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos.
"He was bigger than life, always was," said John Allen Funk, a first cousin of Overton. "I looked up to him all my life because of what he has done, what he stood for, and how he has made our family so proud."
Overton was born Feb. 7, 1920, in the township of Willow in Dallas County and was among the 60,000 to 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war who endured the forcible transfer from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga, in the Philippines that began April 9, 1942. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos perished during the five-day trek in intense heat without food or water.
Kay Overton said her father was among the troops who fell to the Japanese in the first year of the war. Describing her father's experiences as "tortuous," she said he didn't discuss his ordeal until she and her siblings were older.
"He was in a prison camp almost three years," Kay Overton said.
The sinking of the Shinyo Maru was an accident.
"[The Japanese] were moving 700-800 men at a time on these freighters, and the American bombers started bombing those freighters not knowing that our soldiers were on those," Kay Overton said.
Her dad and 80 other prisoners were forced to swim to an island off the Philippines, and two died during the swim or once they reached the island. The rest were rescued later.
"Dad always credited the Filipinos as helping the soldiers until the Americans could come and get them," said Celia Overton, another daughter.
Overton was believed to be one of the last -- if not the last -- living American survivors of the Shinyo Maru. For years, the survivors gathered for reunions, with the last occurring about eight years ago in Kansas City, Mo.
It took the survivors years to say anything to each other about the torture they endured, according to Cornelia Greene of Suwanee, Ga., whose late husband Jim Greene was also a survivor. The men would sequester themselves in a separate room, away from their wives, to talk about their experiences, Greene said.
"If you'd been on the death march and a prisoner of war for many years, what would you do?" Greene said. "You'd keep quiet, too."
Overton married his grade-school sweetheart, the former Maxine Cox, upon his return from war. She had become a lieutenant and a nurse in the U.S. Army when Overton joined the Army Air Forces.
After Maxine died in 2004, Overton married Adrienne Delaney Gregory Overton. They were married for 11 years.
Cletis Overton earned bachelor's and master's degrees in agriculture after getting out of the service and eventually retired as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Department of Home and Loans.
His experiences during the war were recounted in the book The Lord is Our Shepherd, by Steve and Melissa Brawner of Bryant. Funk said Overton probably gave away more books than he sold, but his story had an impact on those who learned of it because he never let his war experiences define him.
"He put that behind him and let life go on," Funk said.
Overton's funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Third Baptist Church in Malvern.
State Desk on 03/03/2016
Print Headline: ‘Bigger than life’ survivor of WWII