As an Army paratrooper in World War II, William E. Smith recalls dropping from 400 feet above the Rhine to land behind enemy forces in Germany, and stopping enemy troops "dead in their tracks."

"We might be scattered over 100 miles, but we'd get in groups of two or three, and the Germans and Italians never knew what was hitting them," Smith said yesterday.

Telling old war stories about jumping from airplanes with parachutes seemed to be the thing to do here in the last few days. More than 38,000 U.S. Army veterans from airborne units and airborne divisions spanning three wars -- and others from 33 other countries, including the Republic of Vietnam -- gathered here, joining for a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue NW yesterday morning.

The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the first U.S. Army platoon to train in the use of parachutes for combat.

The training was a crash program to catch up with other nations. The Soviet army first developed the concept, but it was the Germans who first used it in combat, in 1939 in their invasion of Poland.

The stars of the parade were Smith and his colleagues from World War II, some of whom wore their old khaki parachute suits, adorned with pins and medals, and carried banners and flags representing their divisions. These veterans showed pride in their history.

When Thad Selman was a young man in the Army, he always wanted to be the best at whatever he was doing. So when asked to volunteer for the parachute test platoon at Fort Benning, Ga., he couldn't refuse.

Now he is one of 19 survivors of the original platoon from 1940. There were 49 paratroopers in the unit then.

"It was an adventure . . . and involved a certain amount of danger," said Selman, who went on to serve 28 years in the Army.

His mind floated back to the time he made his first jump. "We'd trained for the jump enough that we were anxious to make it," he said. "Once the chute opened, it was great," he said, smiling. "It was great coming down."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped to establish the airborne school in May 1940, and the first group saw action in November 1942, making a landing in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

From the troop-carrier pilots and glider pilots who had to place their cargo of soldiers safely on target, to the paratroopers, glider troopers and air-assault troopers plunging into battle, these men put their young lives on the line many times.

They proved their worth in Korea and Vietnam, and fought in Panama too.

Mortin Galuskin, who served in the 509th battalion in World War II, said a soldier had to be "crazy, courageous and proud" to serve in an airborne unit.

His friend, Morton Katz, also of the 509th, agreed.

"But once you got into it, you never wanted to do anything else," he added.