One by one, the men walked through the Columbus Metropolitan Airport terminal late Tuesday night.
People to the left. People to the right. Heroes in the middle.
Ninety-six World War II veterans returned home from a daylong West Georgia Honor Flight trip to Washington to visit the World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
More than 1,400 people, many family and friends, jammed the airport to welcome them home, according to Columbus Police Department estimates.
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“These veterans fought in one of the most important wars in American History,” said Army Lt. Col. George Vonhilsheimer, who was there in uniform to pay his respects. “They sacrificed almost everything for this country. They represent citizen soldiers. They did what they had to do, then they came home and lived their lives.”
Columbus Juvenile Court Judge Aaron Cohn, now 93, who served in George Patton’s Army, led them off the plane and into the cheering crowd.
“Oh, my gosh,” Cohn said as people shook his hand and hugged his neck. “I am overwhelmed.”
As the veterans walked the long greeting line, the Northside High School marching band played “God Bless America.”
Band director Tim Zabel, who called the homecoming a “special thing,” and said he was using the experience as a teaching moment for his students.
“I want my kids to realize that they are so fortunate to be able to say what they want and have people that want to defend this country,” Zabel said. “We were born into this country by the luck of the draw.”
He has been talking to his students about the importance of this event.
“This is not just another community gig,” he said.
Ollivia and Lauren McLemore of Smiths were there to meet their great-grandfather Kellon Shepard.
They held a big sign that read “Welcome Home Kellon.”
The experience has been a life lesson for them, said Lauren, an eighth-grader at Wacoochee Junior High.
Her great-grandfather was a Navy photographer.
“He showed me some of his pictures,” she said.
One thing struck her about him.
“He was so handsome,” she said.
Columbus investment broker Dick Stone was not there to see anyone in particular, but he came out anyway.
“People realize we owe these people a debt of gratitude,” said Stone, whose father was a World War II veteran. “And people realize they are dying a thousand a day. And for some of these guys this can’t happen next year or in two years.”
Carley Culpepper, 6, was up past her bedtime to welcome home her grandfather Raymond Smith of Smiths Station. She said she loves him “because he gives me lots of hugs.”
Asked what she was going to do when she saw him, she said, “hug him.”
For veterans like Navy veteran Hawk Hawkins, 83, of Lanett, Ala., the hug was figurative.
“This tells me my time in the service wasn’t wasted,” he said.