Arriving at Long Island MacArthur Airport early in the morning of Sept. 21, John Leonidas, an East Meadow resident and Korean War veteran, was greeted by the sights and sounds of bagpipes, and hundreds of people clapping and cheering.
“It was something you’d need to see to believe,” Leonidas said, recounting his experience with the Long Island chapter of the Honor Flight Network. The nonprofit organization offers veterans free trips to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials of the wars in which they served, focusing on World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Before Leonidas’s flight departed, Honor Flight volunteers presented him with an envelope containing roughly 30 letters from children across the country, thanking him for his service. “It was something that I’ll never forget in my entire life,” he said.
Leonidas joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952, at age 19, and served until 1956. He was stationed at a number of bases around the country, serving as a system mechanic, a pilot and a gunnery sergeant.
After his service, he worked in aerospace for 40 years. “I really enjoyed working in my field,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I did all the schematics, all the cabling, everything like that.”
The biggest thrill of his life, Leonidas recalled, was working as a mechanic on the SM-65 Atlas, the nation’s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile, which took flight in 1957.
“If you were there for the launch and you heard the noise . . .,” he said, and chuckled.
Leonidas also helped build the legs of the Apollo lunar module, and was an electrical designer on the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler. Most recently he was the company’s vice president of general industrial technology for 12 years, until he retired in 1995. He has lived in East Meadow for 30 years with his wife, Josephine, and they have two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.
Elliot Galant also took a trip with Honor Flight. “It was the most breathtaking, emotional thing that ever happened in my life,” he said. “I have tough skin, but it melted away. Now that I’m thinking of it, I’m choked up. It was wonderful.”
Galant, 86, also an East Meadow resident and Korean War veteran, joined the Navy as an 18-year-old in 1951, shortly after the 10-year anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His first destination was Glasgow, Scotland, and when he arrived, he asked a boy on the street where he could get a good meal.
“He said he’d show me around, so I gave him a silver quarter,” Galant recalled.
Almost 58 years later, the child, now well past middle age, contacted Galant and the two met for coffee. “I didn’t know how he found me, but he knew the ship I was on and my name,” Galant recounted. “It was unbelievable. After all those years, he remembered me.”
After his service, Galant worked in communications, and was a proud member of the Communications Workers of America, the largest media labor union in the country. Most recently he worked for Nokia, retiring in 1993, and he is now vice president of the CWA’s Retired Members Chapter 1104.
Galant was born and raised in Brooklyn, and moved to College Point, Queens, in the mid-1950s, and then to East Meadow in 1970 with his wife, Sondra. They’ll celebrate their 62nd anniversary next month, and they have two daughters and five grandchildren, who, Galant says, call him once a week.
“I got them interested in boxing,” he added, “so they take me to shows at Madison Square Garden.”
In addition to his work for the CWA, Galant belongs to the College Point American Legion and the Mid Island Knights of Columbus. He also contributes to the Veterans Service Agency’s food pantry at East Meadow’s Nassau University Medical Center, and gives toys to the hospital’s younger patients during the winter holidays.
His Honor Flight trip, Galant said, left a lasting impression on him. “It was overwhelming,” he said. “I’m a tough guy — you’ve gotta be a tough guy to be a union guy. But I should have brought more Kleenex.”
He recalled the crowds waving and cheering for him and his fellow veterans as they got on and off the plane. Then, when they visiting the Korean War Memorial in Washington’s West Potomac Park, visitors from South Korea thanked him for his service. “It reminded me how many people appreciate that you served,” Galant said.
Another East Meadow resident who was on the flight was Harold Cohen, a 93-year-old Army veteran who served in World War II from 1944 to 1946. “It was unbelievable — I couldn’t believe the reception we received,” Cohen said of the experience. “So many people cared for our country. It really touched me. I can’t believe how much they went out of their way to honor us.”
If you are a World War II, Vietnam War or Korean War veteran and would like to take part in an honor flight, call (631) 702-2423.