The first of 52,000 Orange County area soldiers came home from war Saturday, welcomed as heroes at Southern California military bases where thousands of relatives and patriotic strangers wildly waved ribbons and flags in a giant collective thank-you.
Wearing camouflage fatigues and smiles of relief, an estimated 1,000 Marines got the red carpet treatment upon landing on a glorious California day at airfields in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, as the first sizeable Persian Gulf units returned from the desert.
Arriving by jets and then bused to their home military bases, the American troops were met at their stops and even along their routes by throngs of well-wishers, many of whom shrieked and cried "like a Beatles concert," one onlooker said.
On the runway of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Capt. Dave Lemley, 30, held his wide-eyed, 9-month-old son, Kevin, in his arms for the first time since August.
"You don't remember me yet," the Mission Viejo father told his infant. "That's Da-da!" wife Janie Lemley coaxed, pointing to the flier.
They were among more than 100 wives, children, pen pals and friends who gathered outside an El Toro base hangar to cheer the return of 38 tanned and tired Leathernecks.
Landing at 2:40 p.m. in huge transport planes, the Marines from the Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352--which ferries troops and supplies and refuels jets in midair--were the first Orange County detachment to return.
Two more planeloads of Marines from the same unit are expected at El Toro this afternoon) with four more to follow this week.
Across the Southland, the homecomings sparked victory parades and joyous reunions with all the romance of a World War II movie.
"I want to give them the welcome home I never got," said James Shelton, 38, a Vietnam veteran from Moreno Valley who stood with his wife, Martha, and waved a large American flag near the main gate of March Air Force Base, about 20 miles southeast of Riverside.
"I made a promise to myself," added Shelton, a former Marine, his voice choking with emotion, "that if we ever had another war, I would support those coming home."
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 landing kisses on their weary cheeks.
"This lets me know that it is really over--the war is over and everybody is coming home!" said an excited 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 resistance 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 Norton crowd. "Thank God for people like you. We are ready to go back and fight for the United States of America any time."
At March Air Force Base, an eager crowd of about 500 people were barred from the base but lined Cactus Avenue to greet returning troops hours before their arrival.
At noon, inside the sprawling desert installation, a lone fatigue-colored C-141 taxied to a stop and 105 troops stepped onto the Tarmac.
Looking tired from their 22-hour flight, the Marines in their dusty desert fatigues were taken to a hangar for some brief instructions before getting back onto buses for their final destinations--Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton.
"I love California. It's good to be home," said Cpl. Michael Contrail, 24, of Irvine, browsing through a "reunion" manual before his bus for Camp Pendleton arrived.
He last spoke with his 21-year-old wife, Dawn, Friday from Saudi Arabia. "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 some time alone."
He arrived later Saturday afternoon at Oceanside's Camp Pendleton, along with 52 other Marines who helped liberate Kuwait city two weeks ago.
"We were one of the first two infantry battalions inside Kuwait," said a suntanned and calm Contrail, who left Camp Pendleton Aug. 3. "It was scary, but we had been trained for that, and we had good support."
At Camp Pendleton, 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, "Yeah, 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."
Dressed in civilian clothes, his left hand swathed in gauze, Lance Cpl. Jim Radford, 21, returned to a hero's welcome Saturday as one of the few wounded to return to Camp Pendleton. Two days before President Bush called for a cease-fire he was hit by shrapnel during a battle near Kuwait city's airport. It was Feb. 25, 5:30 p.m. on the nose.
"We were getting ready to go into an attack and then boom! The (stuff) hit the fan, basically," the dark-eyed infantryman said softly. " . . . The worst pain of my life."
Nevertheless, the man from Paradise, Calif., who enlisted in the corps just one day out of high school, intends to re-enlist.
Hours before any troops arrived, the San Onofre gate entrance to Camp Pendleton was crowded with families.
The mother and wife of Marine Don Wright of Fountain Valley arrived extra early to help prepare a huge banner welcoming the troops.
"Just say we're very proud to bring these guys home," said Priscilla Wright, mother of the 21-year-old corporal.
Other early birds were Shawnee Lemos and Michelle Mares, both of Anaheim, whose boyfriends were on their way home.
Lemos' father, a Marine combat veteran, said he was touched by the strong turnout for the returning Gulf troops.
His daughter, Frank Lemos said, "has been on cloud nine for 24 hours."
Some of the flock gathered inside the base just south of Orange County included those with no relatives to welcome home.
"We weren't here when the troops from Vietnam came home," said Mary Psinka. "And for 20 years, we've been feeling kind of a guilty feeling because of that."
The Goodman family said they drove eight hours through the night from their home in Mesa, Ariz., to greet their 22-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Joseph Goodman.
"If he can come back with us," said his mother, Alice Goodman, "we'll just put him right in the car."
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!"
Thousands of well-wishers gathered in clusters in the small towns along a 50-mile stretch of California 62, the rural desert road 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.
As busloads of Marines rumbled by her spot on the curb, 9-year-old Tami Luna of Riverside, dressed in white shorts and a blouse, waved a tiny white balloon which announced, "We support our troops."
"I made it myself," she said, her face beaming. "I'm glad they're back," she said to her parents, Gilbert and Linda Luna.
"I read about this in the paper this morning and said, 'That's where we're going,' " Gilbert Luna said. "These guys are heroes."
Added his wife: "It gives you goose bumps."
Camped out near the Luna family was Girl Scout Troop 1146 of Perris.
"All the girls wanted to show their support and that's why we're here," said Elizabeth Veneroso, their troop leader.
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 in the war due to 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.
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.
Times staff writers Charisse Jones, Matt Lait, Eric Lichtblau, Kenneth Reich, Danny Sullivan, Ray Tessler and David Willman and correspondent Greg Hernandez contributed to this report.