Rocky Mount, N.C. — A huge crowd of people greeted about 125 local World War II veterans when they arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Wednesday evening from the eighth and final Triangle Flight of Honor trip to Washington, D.C.
Four floors of the airport's atrium were packed with people carrying signs, banners and American flags to welcome the veterans home.
"My great-grandfather died in 2004. He was a veteran in World War II, so I felt like I should honor him by coming here today," said 12-year-old Alex Leinbach.
The largest group of veterans in Triangle Flight of Honor history traveled to see monuments and memorials in the nation's capital. The trip, which is free for veterans and paid for by donations, centers around a visit to the National World War II Memorial.
"It meant a lot because it's been 67 years and I got to see a replica of my old ship in the Navy museum," said veteran Ed Donovan.
"It brought back memories. I thought about a lot of people I haven't for a long time," said veteran Leo Smith.
Since 2009, Triangle Flight of Honor has taken more than 800 veterans on such a trip, but Wednesday marked its final voyage, in part due to the dwindling number of living servicemen and women who served in World War II.
Some veterans got a surprise or two during the day-long excursion.
While waiting to depart at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, veteran L.J. Harper was presented with replacements for all of the medals and decorations he earned in the war, which had been misplaced over the years.
"I was not expecting to get these ribbons back to tell you the truth," he said. "But I am grateful."
After arriving in Washington, D.C., veterans were taken by bus to the National World War II memorial, where Jim Cotton, 87, was unexpectedly greeted by family members.
"You're going to have me crying," he told one relative, hugging her.
"What a treat," he said. "I never expected this at all."
For Cotton, it was family that made the trip worthwhile. For 86-year-old Goldie Goldston, it was the chance to lay eyes on the memorial – something he never imagined he would get to do at this stage of his life.
"It's probably the only opportunity I would have had to come," he said. "I don't do much traveling anymore. This just hit the spot."
Looking at the granite pillars and pool of water built to honor him and his comrades, Goldston was overcome.
"It's unbelievable," he said.
Navy veteran Janice Gravely, 90, agreed.
"I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it. I just think it's the most beautiful thing," she said. "It really makes my heart stop."
Gravely, who was one of only two women to make Wednesday's trip, said she wished more veterans could have the opportunity to share her joy.
"I wish the veterans that can't be here could understand that they're being honored in this way," she said.
Veterans will fly back to the Triangle Wednesday evening.
The public is invited to welcome them home at Raleigh-Durham International Airport at 8 p.m.