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 returning troops, shoving yellow carnations and American flags into their hands and popping huge kisses on their weary cheeks.
In the tiny desert town of Joshua Tree, hundreds of well-wishers swarmed dusty Highway 62, bringing busloads of the returning heroes to a grinding halt miles from their destination. Teary-eyed servicemen hung out of bus windows, groping for the hands of strangers as young women blew kisses from the roadside.
"Ladies and gentleman, the Marines are back," a disc jockey from a Yucca Valley country music station announced as the procession rolled toward Twentynine Palms. "There goes the neighborhood."
A convoy of buses headed for Camp Pendleton, meanwhile, swept along the freeway at 70 miles per hour under escort by the California Highway Patrol to hasten its arrival. When the first buses rolled onto the base shortly after 3 p.m., 150 relatives could barely restrain themselves as the stony-faced Marines marched in tight formation onto a parade ground.
"I thought when we got off the bus, it would be just like when we left--nobody here," said an elated Pfc. John Gilliano, who wasted no time in indulging in thick slice of pizza.
About 1,000 Marines flew into Southern California on Saturday, landing throughout the day and night at Norton as well as March Air Force Base near Riverside. They patiently endured brief welcoming ceremonies on the landing strips before climbing into military buses for the long-awaited journey to their home bases. Hundreds more are scheduled to arrive today.
"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 more than 1,000 onlookers crowded on the tarmac at Norton. "Thank God for people like you. We are ready to go back and fight for the United States of America anytime."
Choked-up military police offered only token resistance to the swarm of friends and relatives at Norton as happy Marines raised their fists in a victory salute and joined in chants of: "U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!"
"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 police line to greet Lance Cpl. Bernard Wilson, her boyfriend's best friend.
At March Air Force Base, the public was barred from the military facility, but hundreds of shouting onlookers lined the road outside the main gate to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Marines as they loaded into white buses.
"I want to give them the welcome home I never got," said Vietnam veteran James Shelton, a former Marine from Moreno Valley, who stood with his wife, Martha, waving a large American flag. "I made a promise to myself that if we ever had another war, I would support those coming home."
Along a 50-mile stretch of Highway 62 leading to Twentynine Palms, thousands of well-wishers gathered in clusters to welcome the first busloads of returning Marines. Although the biggest crowds were in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, hundreds of motorists pulled their cars and vans over on the roadside outside other High Desert communities and waited for the buses to pass.
Yellow ribbons adorned cars, mailboxes, front porches--even cacti. Crowds were so dense on the road from Yucca Valley to the Marine base that the convoy was delayed by more than 2 1/2 hours. Families packed picnic lunches, and in some places, celebrations erupted into gritty desert block parties.
Just west of Desert Hot Springs, arriving buses slipped through a sea of red, white and blue on a desolate strip 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.
"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.
Some onlookers waited hours for the buses 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 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."
The first three buses carrying 100 Marines, some of them leaning out windows and waving tiny flags, pulled into the parking lot of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center 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 until-then 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, squeezed 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."
When a second wave of buses arrived later in the evening, Donna Brewer and a friend were waiting with a large American flag in hand. Brewer's husband, a veteran of World War II and Korea, had died in October. The flag was his.
"It was folded and presented to me at the grave," Brewer said. "I thought it was an appropriate time to open it."
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 impatiently as the Marines marched onto 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 toward 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 Marines who arrived in Southern California were part of a steady stream of troops 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. The Pentagon estimates about 5,000 troops will arrive in the United States each week through the summer.
Because of security concerns, most bases across the county were open only to family members and the media.
But Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino was an exception. There, an admiring public was able to mingle freely with arriving Marines, who 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 prison 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 soft drink 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 scrapbook 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.
Getting the attention of a particular Marine sometimes called for creativity.
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." Gonzales 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 strutted from a 747 jet into the arms of his mother, who had pushed her way past the police barrier. 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 go.
"I've been on a cloud the whole flight," said Phillips, overwhelmed by it all.
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 the awaiting 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 some time alone.
"It feels real good to be back," he added. "I love California. It's good to be home."
Murphy reported from Los Angeles, Hubler from Twentynine Palms. Also contributing were Times staff writers Kenneth Reich and Charisse Jones in San Bernardino, Ray Tessler in San Diego and Matt Lait in Riverside.