The sweet coastal breezes that buffet the Gulf of Mexico in spring rippled through the silent crowd and tugged at the American flag, snapping and popping it as an Air Force honor guardsman struggled to keep the staff upright.
Lt. Col. William Page, chaplain at the Air Force's Hurlburt Field, paused a moment, his eyes flickering over the faces of the 3,000 local residents who had come to pay homage to the five Hurlburt airmen killed in the attempt to rescue the American hostages.
"Capt. Charles McMillan was a professional man in every sense of the word," he began. "He asked to do the job and enjoyed giving himself in doing it . . . Capt. Hal Lewis was a strong and determined individual. At times he seemed tough and indestructible . . . Capt. Rick Bakke was a devoted husband, married only a short time. . . ."
Finally, the roll of the dead completed, he looked up, the sunlight glinting on his gold-rimmed glasses. "You see," he said softy as one woman weeped and somewhere a child cried, "there was a lot these men had in common."
Off to one side, the church choir began to sing "God Bless America." In the crowd, first an airman or two here, an elderly couple there, stood and joined in. The momentum built until, like a wave, the crowd was on its feet -- all singing, many in tears, a few husbands holding their wives and children closely.
This Gulf Coast community, shaken by the deaths but proud the attempt had been made, had come to honor their dead.
For the last three days, the small towns in Okaloosa County, much of which is taken up by a huge Eglin Air Force base complex, have been coming to terms with their community's role in the attempt. It has come in stages. First, the news that the attempt had been made piqued their patriotism, not a small factor in this conservative, intensely military-oriented corner of Florida.
Then came still more pride at the revelations later on Friday that tiny Hurlburt Field and its 2,500 airmen, all part of a special operations unit trained and ever ready for just such a task, had supplied much of the air support.
Finally, grief. By late Friday the news was out: Five Hurlburt men were among the eight dead, their horribly burned bodies left behind in the Iranian desert a scant 200 miles short of Tehran and the hostages.
In the bittersweetness of the moment, a radio station urged that the community joined together today to remember the dead. But by early yesterday, the event had assumed proporations beyond what had initally been envisioned. Though the Air Force is planning its own observance at Hurlburt on Wednesday, the commander of sprawling Eglin Air Force Base as well as senior officers from Hurlburt were on hand today. President Carter sent a special message to the gathering. And five local churches provided ministers and choirs for prayers and patriotic songs.
"I grieve with you for the eight fine men who died in the service of America, the president's brief message read."These men . . . acted for their nation's honor."
Those who came to the football field had hoped to be able to pay special honor to the five local airmen's families, all of whom had promised to attend. In anticipation of that, newsmen around the state and nation were warned beforehand that they were strictly forbidden to talk to the families. Air Force security men were to escort the families swiftly to and from the services.
But by the time the 1:30 p.m. service began, the families had not shown up. "It's their private grief," said one Air Force spokesman. "Maybe they just weren't ready to deal with it publicly."
When the service was over, after the National Anthem had been played, after the ministers had spoken of "the supreme sacrifice" and the president's message of solace was read, the crowd quietly filed out. A few remained behind, sitting in the soft warm sunlight, saying little. "We felt we owed it to honor these fellows who gave up their lives," said Morgan Spangle, a retired plumbing parts salesman, who sat with his wife Helen.
"I hope they do it again," his wife said suddnely. "I hope they try to get [the hostages] out again."
Gudrun Trainor, wife of a Hurlburt Field airman and friend of one of the dead men's families, walked slowly from the stands, a black crepe flower pinned to her suit. "I came to show support for these men," she said. "They did not die in vain."