WASHINGTON -- An emotional President Bush led an estimated 800, 000 people Saturday in a star-spangled salute to Desert Storm warriors, the biggest victory celebration since the end of World War II.
Crowds roared as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf brought 8,800 of his troops, some marching and others riding in armored vehicles, on a 2.5-mile parade down Constitution Avenue, past the White House and across the Memorial Bridge.
Men, women and children waved American flags. Many also held handwritten posters, some reading, 'Welcome Home,' 'Job Well Done' or simply, 'Thank you.'
Heads turned upwards when 82 U.S. warplanes streaked across cloud- laced blue skies, past such landmarks of freedom as the Capitol and Washington Monument, in a series of breathtaking flyovers.
'Great day!' exclaimed Bush, stepping down from a reviewing stand to shake hands with Schwarzkopf, the charismatic general who masterminded the allies' eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
'I love it,' said Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Hover, 24, of Pensacola, Fla. 'This makes all the time in the gulf -- I was there five months -- worthwhile. Everyone says we are heroes. I guess we are.'
'They did a hell of a job,' said Robert Coffman, 35, a truck driver from nearby Silver Spring, Md., who came to the parade with his son, Mike, 4. 'This generates a lot of patriotic feelings.'
The day-long $12 million National Victory Celebration began with a memorial service for the nearly 400 American Gulf War dead at Arlington National Cemetery where Bush, his voice cracking with emotion, said:
'Each person we commemorate today gave up life for principles larger than each of us; principles that at the same time form the muscle and strength of our national heart.'
The salute ended with a half-hour long evening fireworks show at the Washington Monument, the biggest ever in the nation's capital. There was also a picnic, a USO concert and an outdoor film that showed highlights of the Gulf War.
In addition, the celebration boasted the biggest display ever of military hardware in Washington -- M-1A1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Patriot missiles and Stealth Bombers, all of which played lead roles in the war.
Much of the celebration was played out on the Mall, used as a staging area a generation ago for protest rallies against the Vietnam War, whose veterans were long shunned and ignored by a deeply divided public.
Expressing the sentiment of many Gulf vets, Marine Cpl. Sabastian Ysaguirre, 22, of Amarillo, Texas, said: 'We were told this would be no Vietnam and it wasn't. We were supported from the start.'
'We also believe that Vietnam vets should have gotten a welcome home. They deserved it,' Ysaguirre said. He then explained to still another wide-eyed tourist on the Mall how his howitzer works.
Kenny Fagan, 22, walked the Mall hawking pennants reading, 'Welcome Home Desert Storm Troops.' He said, 'We need something like this in Washington. It's nice. It's peaceful. It brings people together.'
Not everyone was smiling, though.
A smattering of protesters demonstrated in various ways against the tribute, which they charged amounted to a celebration of war and an affront to the dead, including the estimated 220,000 killed Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
In one incident, a dozen people tossed red liquid on an AV-8B Harrier jet on the Mall. Marines used a firehose to wash off the jet as Park Police rounded up demonstrators.
Along the parade route, where flags from the U.S.-led, anti-Iraq coalition were flown, Rita Waters, a Catholic nun, held a poster reading: 'Tell Me: What Did We Win?'
'The Middle East is still in turmoil, people are still suffering, Saddam Hussein is still in power,' Sister Waters said. 'Instead of spending $12 million on this, we should use the money for the poor and sick.'
She conceded, however, that her sentiment was shared by few. Counter rallies drew sparse crowds, including one across the street from the White House attended by just a few hundred, many passers-by.
'People don't want to hear it,' the Catholic nun said. 'They seem all swept up in this celebration thing.'
Metropolitan Police estimated the mid-day crowd in the Mall and along the parade route at 800,000 people. The 90-minute procession ended with many singing 'God Bless America.'
A CNN-Time magazine poll released Saturday found that 89 percent of Americans feel the United States should be proud of what was accomplished in the war, which liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi reign of terror.
But only 64 percent are happy with what has happened since the shooting stopped, noting Saddam remains in power and that Kuwait's promises of democratic reforms appear far from being fulfilled.NEWLN: more NEWLN: (1stadd stands)