CLEARWATER -- Even a three-hour weather delay couldn't spoil the rousing welcome home that 80 World War II and Korean War veterans, many from Bradenton and Sarasota, received at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport after midnight Tuesday.
Many of the vets say the welcome was the best part of the trip.
A tornado watch delayed their departure from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The vets had to deplane and then reboard before leaving three hours behind schedule.
Not that any of that discouraged a diehard crowd of about 300 from giving them an emotional, flag-waving reception after the vets' whirlwind one-day visit to Washington, D.C.
The vets, averaging about 90 years of age, visited the World War II and Korean War memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, and other historic sites.
A favorite part of the trip? The monuments, certainly. But the huge grins on the faces of vets who passed through a long line of well wishers said loudly the best part was "coming home."
"Thank you for coming, this is a shock," said Dudley Davis, who served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in China during World War II.
Maj. Gen. Steve Grove of U.S. Central Command was the first to greet each of the returning vets, presenting them with commemorative coins.
One of the vets, Murray Zolkower, got to the end of the reception line and pulled out the coin for a look. "Can you believe that, a major general gave me a coin?" Zolkower said.
Emanuel P. Johnson called the trip great, and didn't even mind the weather delay.
"I didn't want to leave," Johnson said.
Bob Vasko of Palm-Aire, a 90-year-old World War II vet, walked through the reception line saluting well-wishers and shaking hands, a big smile on his face.
"Boy, it was exciting," Vasko said.
John Riches of Hudson called the welcome home a wonderful thing.
"We didn't get this kind of welcome in 1946," Richey said.
Mel Salter, who was wounded three times during World War II, held two thumbs up as he rode in his wheelchair through the airport.
"Boy, what a welcome!" Salter said.
Beverly Frey, president of West Central Florida Honor Flight, said this week's mission was the 22nd for the local volunteer organization. Some 1,625 vets have now been taken to Washington, D.C., capped off with a warm, loving homecoming.
The men and women on the flight traveled without charge, as a thank-you in the twilight of their years for their military service.
Among those on the flight were six residents of Bradenton's Westminster Towers and Shores retirement community.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.