James Vick looked more than a little stunned Monday night as he reached the escalator that would take him down to the crowd of hundreds thronging the terminal of the Billings Logan International Airport.
"I was dumbfounded," he said a few minutes later. "I couldn't believe all the people."
Vick, 84, was the first of 86 World War II veterans to be escorted down the escalator Monday, capping a whirlwind two-day trip to Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Big Sky Honor Flight.
Reuben Oberlander looked overwhelmed, too, as he walked slowly between two crowded lines of greeters. After shaking a few dozen hands and being welcomed back again and again, he looked relieved to see John Bleile, an active-duty Army soldier, waiting with an outstretched hand.
Oberlander grabbed his hand, and before Bleile could say anything, Oberlander said, "Thank you for your service."
Not even the vets, however, looked as surprised as some of the people who arrived just before them on an Allegiant Air flight from Las Vegas. With hundreds of people eagerly awaiting the old soldiers, an announcement came over the intercom to please be patient and allow the Allegiant passengers to get through and grab their luggage.
Just for fun, the crowd gave a raucous cheer for the first few people from the Allegiant flight. One woman, as she made her way down the escalator, shook her head and mouthed, "Wow!"
There were many reunions once the vets did arrive.
Carol Blank was waiting for her mother-in-law, Lorraine Blank, a Navy veteran who was on the flight and who turns 90 this weekend.
"It's a big week," Carol Blank said.
Lorraine Blank's daughter, Becky Schardein, said her mother not only served during the war but also installed fuel lines in B-17 bombers at the Boeing plant in Seattle before the war.
"And she said none of 'em crashed because of faulty fuel lines," Schardein said.
One new feature for this Honor Flight homecoming was an enormous flag hanging over the road in front of the terminal, suspended from a Billings Fire Department ladder truck.
Assistant Fire Chief Frank Odermann said he asked Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno where the county got the big flag that sometimes is displayed at MetraPark. It's rented from Perkins, Reno told him, and he wasn't kidding.
Odermann said he went to the Perkins on North 27th Street and it not only had a flag, but it had a new one, 20 by 30 feet, still in the box, which the Fire Department was allowed to borrow free of charge.
Raymond Rae, an 86-year-old veteran, lovingly hugged his wife, Goldie, and five of his 21 great-grandchildren, who were waiting in the terminal, all of them waving handheld flags.
He said it was a fast-moving, busy trip, but he loved it.
"It was great," he said. "Wonderful. We just had a wonderful time."