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From waterboy to war hero, a Veterans Day story

Ben Overstreet badly wanted to play football, but when he started his senior year at Gulf High School in 1949, he stood 5-feet-5 and weighed 105 pounds.

He was as fearless as he was slow. His parents knew he would try to play and probably get hurt. They talked to the coach.

Ben made the team, but as equipment manager, not player. He cheered from the sidelines, celebrated the other boys' glory, brought them water.

His time would come.

• • •

Nineteen seniors made up the Class of 1950. After graduation, Overstreet attended the University of Florida for a year. The only son of an auto mechanic, he didn't have much money. "Stone broke,'' he said, "is more like it.''

The Air Force offered $75 a month, food and shelter, and so a year out of high school, Ben and three of his New Port Richey buddies, Jim Mott, Lamar Crumbley and Earl Raft, signed up for service at the same time.

As a boy, Ben had dreamed of piloting airplanes. The Air Force made him a clerk typist in Texas. But in 1953, he qualified for flight training and came out a second lieutenant. He had been scheduled for duty in Korea, but the war there ended and the demand for pilots dropped. Overstreet received training in various aircraft during the next several years and in 1965 experienced his first combat on bombing missions from Guam into Vietnam.

His war had been at 35,000 feet, and the explosions below were hardly noticeable. Then, in a dramatic change of duty that would also change his life, Overstreet, now a major, took controls in a fixed-wing, single-engine airplane, spotting enemy targets at treetop level.

He had flown about 75 missions without incident through November 1966, directing fighter jets toward Viet Cong movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Now, as he surveyed the Laotian jungle, unarmed except for an M-16 in the cockpit, he flew into a tense attempted rescue. Enemy troops shot at American helicopters as crews lowered lines to secure an F-4 fighter pilot who had been forced to eject. His parachute had snagged on trees. A co-pilot had disappeared into the jungle.

According to published reports, Overstreet flew his plane to the area where the enemy troops had assembled, deliberately drawing fire while the rescue crews located the second pilot. Overstreet logged the location of the enemy and directed an aerial attack that silenced their guns.

For his gallantry, Overstreet was awarded the Silver Star, one of the nation's highest honors. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions a few months after the rescues, when he ignored intense ground fire to direct another fighter attack that destroyed several gun positions.

• • •

"It still seems hard to believe that my plane never took a hit,'' Overstreet said last week from his home in Marietta, Ga. His old friends from New Port Richey days thought his life story would help personify this Nov. 11, the day this country honors its military veterans.

"I can't explain it,'' he said. "I'm quite proud of the medals, but it just means I had the opportunity. A lot of guys nervier than I didn't get the opportunity.''

He returned to battle over Vietnam four more times through 1970, including as a B-52 pilot. He retired in 1971 and spent 23 years training pilots for American Airlines in the Dallas area. "Now I do yard work and walk the dog,'' he said.

He just turned 80 and says he's in good health, "if you don't count the pieces of hide they keep cutting off,'' he said, noting one downside of a youth spent running in the Florida sun. He has two daughters and has been divorced since 1991.

Sixty-two years have passed since he graduated from Gulf High, but he rarely misses an opportunity to come "home'' for reunions. "We've taken some heavy casualties,'' he said, "but it's always good to see those who remain.''

The bustling town he visits now bears little resemblance to the one he enjoyed as a youngster, a safe haven far from any of the world's trouble spots. The teens of 1950 concerned themselves with Friday night dances and football games. Ben Overstreet, small but scrappy, patrolled the sidelines. Who could have known then he would go from water boy to war hero?

From waterboy to war hero, a Veterans Day story 11/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 1:40pm]
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