Under a blizzard of ticker tape, yellow ribbons and multicolored balloons, packed, cheering throngs turned out Monday for the nation’s biggest parade welcoming home the men and women of Operation Desert Storm and honoring the veterans of previous wars.
The four-hour extravaganza featured 24,000 marchers, 12 million pounds of paper and an explosion of patriotic emotion that, for some, was an attempt to finally banish the troubled legacy of the Vietnam War.
For others, it was a huge outdoor party as well as a chance to celebrate America’s victory in the Persian Gulf War.
Under warm, summery skies, the citywide festivities began at noon and continued into the night, with a climactic fireworks show over the East River featuring a mock encounter between a Scud missile and a Patriot missile battery.
The parade, led by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Allied commander, was the high point of several months of national postwar celebrations, including a gala event last weekend in Washington, D.C., that drew an estimated 800,000 onlookers.
Police initially pegged the New York crowd at more than 1 million but increased the estimate later in the day to 4.7 million. In the past, however, police officials have been known to exaggerate the size of such events.
Estimates at the time put the crowd for the 1951 parade for Gen. Douglas MacArthur at 7.5 million, but that event covered a much larger area of Manhattan. The crowd at the recent Gulf War parade in Hollywood was put at 500,000 to 1 million.
Monday’s parade, which cost $5 million to put on, was paid for entirely with private donations.
“This is the day the yellow ribbons can come down and our spirits can rise up to welcome home the heroes and, yes, the she-roes of Operation Desert Storm,” New York Mayor David N. Dinkins said. “Today, we celebrate those who so bravely marched in freedom’s cadence.”
But the celebratory mood was not unanimous. Protesters dotted the parade route, holding up signs denouncing the conflict, which they claim took the lives of 150,000 or more Iraqis. At one point, 20 demonstrators were arrested and eight officers injured when a fight broke out. Along the route, onlookers held up banners charging that “U.S. GIs fight for Wall Street Profits.”
The parade began at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, within sight of the Statue of Liberty. It featured 4,761 uniformed soldiers, sailors and Marines from the Desert Storm conflict, plus thousands of other veterans and a multitude of participants representing 50 different nations, ethnic groups and New York community organizations.
As tons of ticker tape rained down from skyscrapers, the huge, colorful procession slowly made its way through Manhattan’s “Canyon of Heroes,” the site of parades honoring war heroes, astronauts, Charles A. Lindbergh and athletes. But to some veteran observers, Monday’s was the pinnacle of emotional display.
“I’ve seen a lot of these parades, like (that in 1969 for) the Mets, and they were outrageous,” said Jimmy Silvano, 43, who drove one of the lead trucks up the crowded parade route. “But this one today has more feeling to it, and that’s because the country feels better about itself. This is the mother of all parades . . . it’s something you get to see once in a lifetime.”
It may also have been the last chance to see a genuine ticker-tape parade. Much of the paper tumbling from the skies Monday was computer printouts and confetti, because the original item is virtually impossible to find. However, about 200 miles of ticker tape, with stock quotes, was run off and donated to the parade by Trans-Lux Co., a Norwalk, Conn., company that claims to be the world’s last producer of stock tickers and ticker tape.
As tons of paper tumbled into the streets, crowds packed the parade route 20 deep in most places, and there was a nonstop roar of appreciation greeting one military regiment after another. Schwarzkopf and Powell received ovations as they rode past. Children played in waist-deep piles of confetti as parents waved to sons and daughters in uniform marching by.
Midway along the route, Jennifer Ludwicki, 13, from Huntington, Long Island, proudly held up a sign, attached to a faded American flag, that read: “The 8 and one-half months that my daddy was away, this flag stayed out night and day.”
Smiling shyly, the girl said she was waiting for her father, an airman, to march past. She had been sure during the war that something bad would happen to him. When he came home two weeks ago, she said: “I never smiled harder in my life. But my dad was crying.”
Elsewhere, Robert White, 27, stood with a friend holding aloft a black coffin. On its sides were the messages: "$$$ For Vets, Not for Parades” and “Iraqi Deaths do not mean Liberty.”
“I think they should take the $5 million they’re spending on the parade and build a psychiatric clinic to help veterans,” White said, adding that he is a seven-year veteran of the Navy. This prompted a flag-carrying onlooker to scream at White, accusing him of disloyalty and calling him a “communist.”
The critic seemed nonplussed when White answered, “No, I’m not. I’m a Republican.” White noted that he is a registered Republican from Newport Beach in Orange County, Calif.
Toward the end of the parade route, 8-year-old Billy Rosen from Trenton, N. J., laughed uncontrollably as he dumped a mass of confetti on his friend Brad’s head and fell to the ground. When asked about the parade and what it meant, he scrambled to his feet and got serious.
“It means that we won,” he said, clearing confetti out of his hair. “We always win.”
Audrey Britton of the Times New York bureau contributed to this story.