by: Greg Suskin Updated:CHARLOTTE —
Flags waived while applauses and cheers filled the hallways at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as 21 World War II veterans got off a plane from Paris after five days in France.
Men from North and South Carolina were some of the hundreds of remaining survivors of D-Day who wanted to go back to the country they helped liberate 70 years ago.
Floyd Hailey of Rock Hill saw the shores of France for the first time in 70 years and it brought him to tears. He was only 16 years old at the time.
"This is the first time I've been back since," he said. "I still get emotional."
Getting off the plane in Charlotte, the veterans were given a true heroes welcome as members of the Patriot Guard Riders presented a wall of United States flags to honor them.
Clifford Dill of Liberty, South Carolina also landed on D-Day.
He was a U.S. Navy medic whose job was to care for wounded troops.
He also had not been back to the beaches since the war.
On Tuesday, he shook hands and told Channel 9 he remembered June 6, 1944 like it was yesterday.
"I can tell you everything I did. It's right here," he said pointing to his head.
Dill said he wanted to go back to see how much it had changed there.
He said the area was beautiful now and not at all like it was during the fierce fighting.
"I wanted to see how it looked now because when I was over there we tore up everything. Even shot the steeples off their churches," he said.
More than 100,000 troops stormed the beaches that day.
Hailey said D-Day is like the Fourth of July in France because it's a national celebration of what allied forces did -- giving their lives on those beaches and in the hard battles that followed.
The veterans realized the trip was likely their last opportunity to not only have the experience but to join the brothers they served with on the world stage.
They saw gratitude from the French people as thousands attended special services.
"It was just like this," Hailey said, describing the crowd at the airport Tuesday. “I couldn't get 10 steps without somebody stopping me. It means a lot."
Eighteen of the veterans from South Carolina left the airport and boarded a bus for Columbia, South Carolina. As their bus reached York County heading south on Interstate-77, they were greeted by a giant flag flying over a Fort Mill overpass.
Local firefighters used their trucks to hold it in place for them to see. It was one more salute to their bravery and courage, generations later.
A welcome-home celebration is planned in Columbia with their families and others.
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