In a script almost too good even for a classic Hollywood war movie, hundreds of triumphant Marines in rumpled battle fatigues poured from transport planes Saturday into a balmy, picture-postcard-perfect Southern California, ending seven months of aching separation and setting off victory parties from the High Desert to the coast.
In a frenzied, emotional scene at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, yelping friends and relatives broke through police lines to greet arriving troops, shoving yellow carnations and American flags in their hands and popping huge kisses on their weary cheeks.
"This lets me know that it is really over--the war is over and everybody is coming home!" said a giddy LaQueta Owens of Fontana, who jumped the line to greet Lance Cpl. Bernard Wilson, her boyfriend's best friend.
Choked-up military police offered only token resistence to the swarm, as flushed Marines raised their fists in a victory salute and joined the 1,000 onlookers in chanting: "U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!"
"It goes without saying, we thank God we are back in America," Marine Lt. Col. John Himes of the 7th Expeditionary Force from Twentynine Palms told the crowd. "Thank God for people like you. We are ready to go back and fight for the United States of America anytime."
At March Air Force Base near Riverside, the public was barred from the military facility, but hundreds of hooting onlookers lined the road outside the main gate to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Marines as they loaded into buses for journeys to Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton.
"I want to give them the welcome home I never got," said Vietnam veteran James Shelton, a former Marine from Moreno Valley, who stood waving a large American flag with his wife, Martha. "I made a promise to myself that if we ever had another war, I would support those coming home."
Thousand of well-wishers gathered in clusters in the small towns along a 50-mile stretch of Highway 62, the rural desert roadway leading to Twentynine Palms, to welcome the first busloads of returning Marines. The biggest crowds were in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, but hundreds of motorists pulled their cars and vans over on the dusty roadside outside other High Desert communities.
Yellow ribbons adorned cars, mailboxes, front porches--even cacti. Crowds were so dense on the stretch from Yucca Valley to the Marine base that the convoy was delayed by more than 2 1/2 hours.
"They came from the desert, fought in the desert and now they've come home to the desert," said a smiling Bill Gagnon of Indio, who stood along the roadway.
Just west of Desert Hot Springs, the buses slipped through a sea of red, white and blue on a barren stretch of the highway, where volunteers from American Legion Post 763 passed out flags and directed traffic. Radios and horns blasted, creating a cacophony that only a homesick Marine could love.
Some well-wishers waited hours for the procession to arrive, hoping to catch a bit of history in the making. Others happened upon the throng and decided to stay. People began lining the streets at 10 in the morning, but the first buses did not arrive at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms until 4:20 p.m.
"They went over there for us; why can't we be here for them when they come back?" said Bob Gonzalez, who waited several hours for the buses with his wife and three children. "When he gets older," he added, pointing to his 18-month-old son, "I'm sure it's going to be in his history book. I'll be able to tell him he was here."
Three white buses carrying 100 Marines, some of them hanging out windows and waving tiny flags, pulled into the Marine base parking lot with Warrant Officer Steve Clayton riding the roof of the lead bus, a giant American flag in hand. A brass band broke into a rendition of the Marine Hymn and an orderly crowd of 500 friends and relatives slipped into anarchy.
Midway through a speech by one officer, families climbed over what remained of tape barriers, tripped over duffel bags and ran to their loved ones--fathers, husbands, boyfriends and sons.
Sgt. Anthony LaCrue, a single father of four who has been gone seven months, was greeted by his sisters, brothers, mother and sobbing children--Lisa, 7, Monica, 6, Christina, 4 and Bobby, 2, who have been staying with his sister in Long Beach.
Tears streaming down his face, the bespectacled sergeant stretched to hug all four children at once.
Nearby, Sgt. Robert Moreno, 31, of Pacoima, hugged his son and namesake Robert Jr., 12, for more than a full minute before either could speak. "It feels so good to be back," he said, surrounded by the rest of his family. "This is what makes it all worthwhile, coming back to people who care."
At Camp Pendleton, the first arrivals included a contingent of 52 Marines who were among the ground troops that helped liberate Kuwait city just two short weeks ago. In a decidedly formal military welcome, their families watched with restraint as the Marines marched on to the base's parade grounds.
Some family members stood on their tiptoes, and one released a gaggle of yellow balloons as the returning Marines lined up in formation and faced the crowd of about 150 relatives.
Both sides stood in awkward silence until a child yelled, "Yea, Daddy!"
Then, it all broke loose. Marines hugged each other and charged towards their loved ones. One group of about 15 servicemen formed a small prayer circle.
Sgt. Ray Lorenzo of National City, a mortar specialist, gave an unending hug to his wife, Sheila, who blotted an equally unending flow of tears. Asked what he was going to do, he replied: "I'm going to go home and lie down on a bed for a while . . . I could never imagine there would be a turnout like this."
The 1,000 Marines who arrived Saturday in Southern California were part of a steady stream of soldiers who flowed into cities and military bases across the nation. From Latrobe, Pa., to Fayetteville, N.C., excited crowds cheered as their men and women returned home from the Gulf. The Pentagon estimates that about 5,000 troops will arrive in the United States each week through the summer. At Norton Air Force Base, the only military air base officials opened to the public, arriving Marines were greeted like movie stars. Excited visitors circled some of the troops--it didn't matter which ones--asking for autographs, snapping photos and repeating, "Thank you! Thank you!"
One elderly man pulled out a newspaper photograph of himself from a Korean War prisoner camp and beseeched Marine Executive Officer Mike O'Neal, one of several servicemen tugged into the crowd, for a signature. "We came to welcome you home," the man's wife told O'Neal passionately. "We came to welcome you home."
O'Neal, who left for the Persian Gulf last August, related war stories from Kuwait, shared a soda with the crowd and thanked everyone for the reception.
"We thought there would be a few people, but we didn't expect so many," he said. "This is very humbling for a Marine. It has almost made seven months in the desert worth it."
Earlier in the day, Bertha Giron, her husband, Jess, and 17-year-old son, Tony, delivered their blue, oversized scrap book to a Marine officer as they waited for the first transport plane to arrive. Bertha Giron has been clipping newspaper stories and photographs and mounting them on construction paper since last summer.
Giron wanted the general at Twentynine Palms to seal her tome with his signature. He obliged.
"It is history, and we will pass it on," Bertha Giron explained.
Patti Gonzales, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Phillips, carried a huge placard bearing her son's name and a red arrow pointing down to the word, "Mom." She waited anxiously as one plane arrived and her son was not on board.
"This is our hometown," the San Bernardino woman said. "He would not understand if his Mom was not here at the hometown airport to greet him."
Later, Phillips bounded from a 747 jet with 400 other Marines and into her arms. A group of Boy Scouts and neighbors soon joined in the reunion, as Gonzales burst into tears and hugged her son as if she would never let him go.
"I've been on a cloud the whole flight," said Phillips, overwhelmed by it all.
Even the flight crew aboard the chartered TWA jetliner was swept up by the history of the moment.
"This was a high point of our lives," said flight attendant Julia Schlesinger.
Becky Brooks and JoJo Cessop, military wives who work at the Norton base, waved a huge placard proclaiming, "It's Miller time, Bud's 4 you, gas 85 cents," as they searched for Cessop's husband in the throng of Marines.
Cessop said she was certain her husband would want a beer, especially since beverages aboard the plane were restricted to juice, water and soft drinks. Other Marines were handed beers by friends and relatives before they climbed onto chartered military buses.
Not every Marine, though, had a friend or relative awaiting his return. Cpl. Michael Contrail, 24, of Irvine, was reading over a "reunion" manual in the hangar at March Air Force Base after his noon landing. Contrail said he last spoke to his 21-year-old wife on Friday.
"She thinks I'm getting in tomorrow, but I'm sure they'll tell her I'm in today," he said with a smile. "Once we get a leave, my wife and I are going to make a tour and see all the family, but tonight, we're going to go out for a quiet dinner and spend sometime alone.
"It feels real good to be back," he added. "I love California. It's good to be home."
The feelings were echoed across the country in Latrobe, Pa., where thousands braved chilly winds to greet the Army Reserve's 14th Quartermaster Detachment, the unit that suffered the most casualties of the war in a Scud missile attack on its barracks Feb. 25. The attack killed 13 members of the unit and wounded scores more in the final week of the war.
"I want to lounge in a bubble bath, and I can't wait to get in my water bed," said Sgt. Mary Rhoads of California, Pa., as she was reunited with her husband and infant son.
The only reminder of the Scud missile attack was the unit's tattered banner, which Army officials had offered to replace. But reservists said they wanted to keep the flag salvaged from the rubble of the barracks in Saudi Arabia.
In North Carolina, more troops returned to Ft. Bragg as Fayetteville, N.C., planned the largest parade in the military community's history for today.
The first troops began arriving Friday morning, and long into the night, aircraft brought hundreds more to bases in Texas, Hawaii, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.
In Virginia, a second squadron of 24 F-15s returned to Langley Air Force Base and although Saturday's welcome was smaller than a massive celebration Friday, the return was just as emotional for 100 family members and loved ones.
"Not a dry eye in the house," said 1st Lt. Mary Dillon, a spokeswoman at Langley.
Earlier, nearly 250 medical personnel arrived at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va. An early-morning party was held for members of Fleet Hospital 5, who arrived shortly after midnight.
"He's coming home just in time," said Christine Dull, whose husband served as an X-ray technician in Saudi Arabia. Dull is weeks away from giving birth.
Times staff writers Shawn Hubler, Charisse Jones, Matt Lait, Kenneth Reich and Ray Tessler contributed to this story.