Inside Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, Wonder Woman stands near a few Uncle Sams as the Statue of Liberty weaves through the huddled masses, plastic torch in hand. Surrounding
Inside Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, Wonder Woman stands near a few Uncle Sams as the Statue of Liberty weaves through the huddled masses, plastic torch in hand. Surrounding them, in an airline terminal awash in red, white, and blue, a crowd gathers. They bring star-shaped balloons, American flags of all sizes, and homemade signs proclaiming, “Welcome Home,” “Thank You for Your Service,” and “We Love You, Daddy Wallace.”
Then, here he comes. Daddy Wallace. He appears from around a corner, one of 99 military veterans who flew to Washington, D.C., earlier on this Wednesday as part of the Triad Honor Flight. Now, they’re returning home to great fanfare. When Daddy Wallace comes into view, the onlookers roar.
Garland Wallace — a U.S. Navy veteran from Winston-Salem, affectionately known by his kinfolk as Daddy or Granddaddy Wallace — looks puzzled by the attention. He makes his way into the terminal, walking on a makeshift runway nearly 50 yards long and bordered by stanchions and a crowd six people deep.
Under the bright lights, his face glows: All these people coming together, he keeps telling himself, showing love. Nothing but love.
Near the security checkpoint, away from the jubilance, stands Alison Huber. A married mother of two and the only daughter of a Green Beret, she’s the brains behind Triad Honor Flight, a reboot of an earlier program called Triad Flight of Honor. For two years beginning in 2009, the Piedmont Rotary District 7690 flew World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial honoring their service. But after 13 flights, that project ended in November 2011. Seven years later, inspired by an emotional trip to D.C. with her father to see the monuments, Huber reconfigured the volunteer effort as Triad Honor Flight, offering the experience not just to World War II vets but to all veterans — age 65 and older — who live in central North Carolina.
Standing before a row of American flags as the veterans exit the plane, Huber is star-spangled from her socks to her top hat. The vets have just landed safely back home after a long and exhausting day of visiting military monuments and connecting with each other. The trip began around daybreak, and it’s now just before sunset. Huber has been with the group all day as the flight director, and she’s now here to prepare them for their post-trip parade, their welcome home. She greets them, hugs them, and tells each one the same thing about the big crowd that they’re about to meet around the corner. “Take it in,” she says. “This is all for you.”
Edna Livengood emerges in a wheelchair pushed by her daughter, Elizabeth Livengood Ayers. A nurse during World War II, Livengood raises her chin high and smiles big as she rolls toward the crowd. She holds a cane in one hand and waves with the other. Her daughter laughs. “You’re just like Queen Elizabeth, waving back and forth,” Ayers says.
Livengood can’t resist. The last time she was recognized for her military service was in the spring of 1945. She was getting ready to fly to Hawaii to care for injured soldiers at a U.S. Army hospital. Livengood and two of her nurse friends were staying in New York City, and they wanted to celebrate one more time before their lives got hectic. So they went to Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, the famously opulent Times Square nightclub. When the club manager heard about their service, he seated them up front under a spotlight. The club’s crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Back then, Livengood was 23. On this day, she’s 100. And her post-trip parade in Greensboro is the first time in 77 years that anyone has recognized her military career. So, as her daughter wheels her past the crowd, Livengood waves and smiles and waves some more.
“I was feeling my oats,” she says later, laughing.
Her husband, Dick, died in 2009. He was a World War II Marine veteran. Since then, Livengood has rarely ventured beyond her home in Davidson County, a sylvan spot of 35 acres where she and Dick reared four children. At her 100th birthday party in October 2022, three generations of Livengoods celebrated at her home. At the party, her great-nephew suggested that she go on the Triad Honor Flight. She didn’t respond. Then, at another family gathering in March, he mentioned it again. This time, she perked up.
“I think I’d like to do that,” she said.
Everyone in the room nearly fell out of their chairs. Why the change of heart? they asked.
“I’m 100,” she replied. “If it kills me, I don’t care.”
Earlier today, when she boarded the airplane bound for D.C., Livengood became the oldest female veteran from World War II to participate in Triad Honor Flight. In Washington, she was asked to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “It was quite the honor,” she says. “He sacrificed for us.”
Livengood’s daughter watched the whole scene play out, and what she saw caught her off guard. Ayers, a 70-year-old retired pharmacist, felt tears inch down her cheeks. “They were playing ‘Taps,’ and Mom had her little hand pressed against her forehead [in a salute],” she says. “It about made me cry. I had never seen her do that, and to see her frail hand up against her forehead, it touched my heart.”
When Porter Halyburton follows Livengood out of the plane, Huber dutifully stops him before he heads toward the big crowd in the terminal. “Welcome home,” she says.
Halyburton turned 82 in January. In October 1965, when he was a 24-year-old Navy radar intercept officer, his fighter jet was shot down near Hanoi. His pilot, Stanley Edward Olmstead, died. Halyburton ejected and was later captured by villagers armed with knives, spears, and old rifles. He spent 2,675 days as a prisoner of war — seven years and three months cooped up in cells at eight different prisons. On a Monday in February 1973, he walked out of his last one, Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Halyburton turned back and said, “I forgive you.”
Earlier today, up in D.C., Halyburton stood before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stared at the long list of names. “I was looking at Stan Olmstead’s name and seeing it in stone,” he says. “I always think about how, if we were going slightly faster than we were, the shell would have gone off in my cockpit rather than Stan’s.” He pauses. “My name could have easily been on that wall.”
Last year, the Naval Institute Press published Halyburton’s memories, poems, and drawings in Reflections on Captivity: A Tapestry of Stories by a Vietnam War POW, and named him its Author of the Year. In the memoir, Halyburton writes of how he persevered by staying active mentally, spiritually, and physically. A 1963 graduate of Davidson College with a degree in English literature, Halyburton had written down some of the poems in his cells on whatever he could find, but mostly, he committed them to memory until he returned home. They reveal a resilient young man who used words to cope and survive.
He wrote about more than just war and captivity. He also wrote about the girl from Queens College whom he’d met at a party. They got married two days before Christmas 1963. He was 21; she was 20. As a P.O.W. seven years later, he expressed his love for her in a poem called “Marty.”
How can I describe you
Or what you mean to me,
I cannot paint the picture
With the words for you to see,
But I can say, “I love you”
In a thousand different ways,
Love you and adore you
To the end of my days.
Inside the terminal in Greensboro, Halyburton meets what he describes as a “wave of humanity.” Every few feet, people are holding banners and flags. He waves to them. What he sees feels genuine and also somehow very familiar.
Then he remembers. After his release in 1973, he’d walked into a similarly jubilant celebration looking for his wife, Marty, and the 7-year-old daughter he hadn’t seen since she was 5 days old. Her name was Dabney. On this night in Greensboro, Halyburton finds himself looking for them again. He spots them near the back of the makeshift runway. Dabney, now 58, stands with her husband, Walker. Beside her is Marty, Halyburton’s wife of nearly 60 years.
He is home. Again.
When the “Welcome Home” celebration ends, U.S. Air Force veteran Laura Bellanger catches up with her longtime companion Garland Wallace. Since the death of Wallace’s wife, Diane, just over a decade ago, he and Bellanger have spent much of their time doing things together. That includes the Triad Honor Flight.
Bellanger, 76, spent 22 years in the Air Force. She enlisted because she wanted to earn a living like her military husband did. After their divorce, she stuck with it. Bellanger worked in pediatric units and became a nursing supervisor. She was stationed all over the world.
Wallace, 88, spent four years in the Navy. As a young man who’d never ventured farther north than Danville, Virginia, his military stint sent him as far north as Iceland and as far south as Cuba. He saw the North Atlantic from the deck of the destroyer USS Forrest Royal. Wallace keeps a framed black-and-white photo of the ship in his den as a reminder of his service.
Bellanger doesn’t have that luxury. In January of 2015, an electrical short in her basement caused a fire that destroyed her home in Stanleyville. She lost everything from her military career. The only thing that the firefighters could save was the six-foot metal American flag hanging on her garage door.
That was rectified during the Triad Honor Flight. Earlier in the day, at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, Bellanger was presented with a certificate in a handsome folder along with two commemorative coins, each as big as a half-dollar, to honor her service. She didn’t know about this presentation. When she received the folder, she cried. “That was special for me,” she says later. “I never felt worthless. I had a good career. I got to hobnob with generals and airmen. But I lost everything in the fire. Now, I have something to hold onto.”
The crowd in the terminal begins to thin as Wallace gathers with four generations of his family for a photo beneath a huge American flag. He’s surrounded by at least two dozen people. At his left, sitting in a wheelchair, is Bellanger.
While the group poses, Huber stands nearby with some volunteers. Still in her top hat and all-American outfit, she’s tying up the final details of a very long day. Huber has organized five Triad Honor Flights so far, and with each trip comes special happy moments. And some sad ones.
The day after the “Welcome Home” celebration in Greensboro, Huber gets some tough news. She finds out that a World War II veteran from Burlington, a man she’d befriended from a previous Triad Honor Flight, had died on the very day of the Wednesday flight. His name: Vincent Corsini.
During World War II, Corsini served in the Army as an ammunition carrier. He landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. He saved a man’s life that day. The man had broken his foot, and Corsini dragged him 300 yards to safety through sand and pebbles. Corsini was just 19. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.
A year ago in October, Corsini led the Honor Flight’s post-trip parade through the airport. And now he is dead at 98.
After a funeral mass at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Corsini’s graveside memorial service takes place at Alamance Memorial Park in Burlington. Before his death, he asked to be laid to rest with something very special to him, something that made him happy.
His wish is fulfilled. Corsini is buried wearing his blue Triad Honor Flight jacket.
To find out more, visit triadhonorflight.org.
This story was published on Oct 23, 2023