The Weber County Band played "Armed Forces Salute." But cheers from hundreds of people drowned out the high school musicians as a chartered jumbo jet taxied up to Hangar 37.
More than 300 support troops and several pilots from Hill Air Force Base returned home Tuesday afternoon from a Middle Eastern country where they had been since late August.They had kept the F-16 Fighting Falcons flying for hundreds of missions against Iraqi positions during the Persian Gulf war, and now one of the F-16s still at home was welcoming them back: A jet streaked straight up beneath the dense cloud cover.
They were among more than 1,200 returning to Hill this week. The F-16s of the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron, planes that fought in the combat, were due in on Wednesday; the 421st TFS jets were to arrive Friday.
Elsewhere, other Utahns were coming home from war. A handful of civilian volunteers from Tooele Army Depot arrived at the Salt Lake International Airport Tuesday afternoon, having stopped at Norfolk, Va., on their way home from Saudi Arabia.
As the Boeing 747 approached the crowd at Hill, people moved closer, waving dozens of flags. Someone aboard the jet opened a hatch above the cockpit windows and held out a plastic sheet with an American flag on it. The crowd cheered, whistled and surged forward.
A large American flag with a yellow scarf tied near the top of the staff waved above the crowd. Colonels, sergeants, relatives of the returnees, captains, reporters, airmen and women in green jungle camouflage all hurried toward the plane.
"They're opening, Becky!" someone told a little girl. "They're opening the door!" "Here they come," and then whoops. When the door of the 747 opened at the top of a flight of stairs, people at first screamed, then fell silent for a moment.
Then cheering started again as the stairs were filled with men and women in camouflage. A man held up a flag, the crowd roared, and a woman from the audience made her way through the cordon of military guards at the front. She ran to her airman, and they walked toward the hangar together, the man holding her tight.
Suddenly the crowd surged to the plane. A woman in uniform was yelling, and another Air Force man asked her if she recognized someone coming down the stairs. "Well," she said, "everybody deserves the same welcome."
A man held a homemade sign above his head, "TSGT Rodney Shatto Welcome Home!"
Wendy Gann, wife of Staff Sgt. Michael Gann of the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, who has been in the Persian Gulf region since August, carried their daughter, Emily, 2. Asked how she felt, she said, "Great! I've been waiting awhile."
People were shouting to men they knew as they continued to stream down the stairs. "Les! Les! Les! Les!" a woman screamed. "Right here, right here, right here!"
As the arrivals mingled in the joyous crowd, kissing and hugging their families, people could read the welcoming yellow tags they had received when the plane stopped to refuel at Bangor, Maine.
They wore their war uniforms: campaign hats, sometimes with yellow ribbons tied to them; a knife or a canteen clipped to the front. Some carried flags. A woman had yellow ribbons tied in her hair. A man wore a flag as a kerchief on his head.
A sergeant buried his face in his wife's shoulder, and they kissed and hugged for a long time. He picked up a child and hugged and smiled.
Meanwhile, people in the crowd were crying out names. When one man got on the ground, his wife gave him a big hug and then jammed his wedding ring back on his finger.
A man on the stairs yelled and pumped the air with his arm: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!" he shouted. A section of people toward the front of the crowd began screaming together, as a family recognized someone.
Tech. Sgt. Wayne Dale of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing was in the crowd greeting his wife and children. He said the pandemonium on the airplane when they landed was just about as wild as it was on the ground.
"It was loud and it was happy. We've been waiting for this for seven months," he said. His wife, Laura, said, "There's nothing you can describe."
"It's great," said Sgt. Holly Weist, an electrician in the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, just after she had stepped off the plane and greeted her brother Tom and husband Roy Weist. "It was a long time. We were gone for seven months."
As the plane approached, she said, they sang a popular song that was piped in over the speakers, "I'm Proud to be an American."
What was it like for a woman in the Middle East? "The local people were real nice. They did everything for you they could do."
Was it tough staying home when she was gone? "Very," her husband said. Now he felt "Better. Lots better."
People were entering the hangar, walking through a huge arch made of red, white and blue balloons. Loops of yellow balloons extended to either side.
Inside Hangar 37 - which was decorated as the base's official welcome center - friends greeted each other, shaking hands. Beyond the doors, the huge plane seemed to hover over the crowd. A mountain of duffel bags had been unloaded onto a truck.
Calls went over the public address system for this sergeant or that airman to come to the float, where their wives waited. The float was a sparkly, silver and blue concoction with a large model of the Discovery space shuttle and an F-16 arcing above.
At one end, an American flag stretched across a wall, at least 15 by 20 feet. "WELCOME HOME TROOPS" said a banner beside it. Walls were plastered with posters: "Welcome home warriors 2892 Distribution Squadron." A cardboard camel stood among potted plants.
Brigadier Gen. Clark Griffith, vice commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center at the base, was speaking from the float: "Welcome home to all the heroes," he said.
Then Gov. Norm Bangerter took the microphone. When he said, "Isn't it great to be an American?" he was greeted by applause and cheers.
"I've been doing this, coming and going with family, for 50 years, and the tears still come when I see these reunions," Bangerter said. "God bless you."
Outdoors, one couple stood with their arms around each other. They were simply gazing into each other's eyes.
Meanwhile, families were streaming through the gate in the fence that surrounded the flight operations center, going toward the parking lot. Men carried duffel bags. One couple lugged a bag together.
A little girl walked proudly, wearing her dad's floppy campaign hat. She doffed the hat and took a big bow, and continued walking with her reunited family.