More than 700 members of the Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division staged a dramatic finale to their mission in Honduras by parachuting into their home base as wives, children and officers cheered.
The paratroopers piled out of seven C-141 transport planes, filling the sky with olive-drab parachutes Monday as family members and officers applauded from grand-stands."We went down there to do a job, and it turned out they really didn't need us to do it," said Spec. 4 Randy Beebe, 24. "When they decided they didn't, it became business as usual, a training exercise."
Meanwhile, about 160 members of the 7th Infantry Division, dispatched to Honduras with the 82nd after Nicaraguan forces chased Contra rebels into that country, returned to California as a band welcomed them home with "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
The soldiers, clad in full combat gear, marched out of three planes at Travis Air Force Base before an honor guard dressed in fatigues.
The infantrymen came home Tuesday to their base at Fort Ord about 100 miles south of San Francisco, where loved ones welcomed them with yellow ribbons and banners with messages like "Good Job, Guys" and "Welcome Home, We Missed You."
The 3,200 soldiers from both divisions had been sent to back up the Honduran army on March 17 but never got close to the Nicaraguan-Honduran border as they participated in training exercises with Honduran soldiers.
A 60-day cease-fire was signed last week between the Nicaraguan government and the Contra rebels.
"We were watched by everyone in the world, and everyone was impressed. I want you to know I'm very proud of you," Lt. Gen. John Foss, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, told paratroopers lined up in formation after the drop.
"Twelve days ago, Nicaraguan forces had entered Honduras," Foss said. "Now . . . there are no Nicaraguan forces in that country, and a cease-fire exists."
Honduras, which requested the U.S. troops, had accused Nicaragua of crossing its borders in pursuit of the Contras. Nicaragua denied the charge.
At Fort Bragg, soldiers celebrated their return in joyful reunions with their families.
"It's great, it's great. Oh, God, it's great," Staff Sgt. Raymond Gates, 29, said after hugging his wife, Sharon.
His sons, Jarrod, 7, and Christopher, 2, leaped into his arms while a friend held his rifle.
Spec. 4 Beebe said he got a little nervous early in the stay, "but this is what you're trained to do. We were ready to go."
He said the first thing he wanted to do was call his parents in Missouri, and "let them know I'm OK. My mom's the worrying type."
The paratroopers landed in the base's Sicily Drop Zone, a name recalling the unit's glory days of World War II. The 82nd made its first combat jump into Sicily and later dropped into France with the 101st Airborne Division in the Normandy invasion.
Monday's jump "was a good drop, a beautiful drop," said Capt. Donald M. Sensing, a Fort Bragg spokesman. "The first paratrooper out was three seconds early, but we're not quibbling with that."
All 3,200 soldiers are expected to be back by Friday, Army officials said.
The mission ended just in time for 1st Lt. Steve Swimley, who was getting bored.
"We were doing the same stuff over and over," Swimley said as he hugged his wife, Mary.