Americans gorged themselves on turkey and watched parades and football on Thanksgiving, but the day for family get-togethers was bittersweet for those with loved ones in the Persian Gulf.

"We'll all be aware of the empty place at the table," Vernon Hunt, 56, of Des Plaines, Ill., said before his family sat down to dinner. Hunt's son, Stephen, is a Marine stationed on a battleship in the Persian Gulf.The holiday was gloomier for diplomats and others held captive by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The embassy staff in Kuwait dined on canned tuna fish washed down with water from a swimming pool.

Some hostages in Iraq were treated to lavish Thanksgiving feasts attended by news reporters before they returned to detention at strategic sites or virtual house arrest in Baghdad.

President Bush was upbeat while visiting troops in the Persian Gulf. First lady Barbara Bush wore desert camouflage gear and waited in a military chow line with the president for helpings of turkey.

Stateside, soldiers destined to join those overseas enjoyed a parting taste of home cooking and family time.

"We're just really thankful I'm here for this one. We're cutting it real close here," said Marine Sgt. Gerald Pennington, a reservist from Connecticut whose unit is being activated Sunday for possible Persian Gulf duty.

More than 200,000 American troops have been sent to the Middle East since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, and their numbers are set to double.

Also growing are the numbers of needy as the nation's economy sours.

"We're seeing a big increase in the number of people who need food and shelter this year because of the recession and layoffs," said Maj. Carl Ruthberg of the Salvation Army in Cincinnati. "In many cases, these are people who have never been laid off before and don't know how to deal with it."

Ruthberg said his organization doubled the number of Thanksgiving dinners given out last year. Similar increases were reported nationwide.

Civil rights activist Hosea Williams estimated 25,000 people got a hot meal at his 22nd annual Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta. The Salvation Army cooked turkey dinners for 10,000 in New York City. In San Francisco, 6,000 people showed up for a holiday meal at Glide Memorial Methodist Church.

"Things are definitely different this year," said the Rev. Cecil Williams of the Glide church. "There's been the recession, the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the uncomfortable inconsistencies of the charitable givers . . . and the children, more than we've ever seen."

Even one of the most festive Thanksgiving traditions - the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City - was tinged with sadness this year.

A giant helium-filled balloon of Kermit the Frog returned to the parade in honor of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died this year. "Kermit makes me sad," said Paul Oppold, 27, who lost his smile when the green frog came into view.

And at the end of the parade, about 20 AIDS activists unfurled banners that read, "4,752 AIDS Deaths 'till Christmas" and "Ask Santa Claus for National Health Care."

Joining the helium-filled cartoon character balloons this year was Bart Simpson, barreling down Broadway on a 35-foot-long skateboard.

Detroit also was home once again for one of the traditional Thanksgiving Day football games watched on television by millions nationwide. The Detroit Lions beat the Denver Broncos 40-27. In Dallas, the other traditional Thanksgiving Day combatant, the Cowboys, beat the Washington Redskins 27-17.

While many Americans were too stuffed with food to make it off the living room couch, 30,000 people ran a marathon in Atlanta.