The generals from Washington came with glory words: "patriotism," "sacrifice," "rendezvous with destiny." Tubas and trumpets launched brassy anthems. Everywhere were flags, white gloves, spit-shined boots.
But as the first of the bodies of the 248 young soldiers killed in Thursday's plane crash in Newfoundland returned to native soil today, wrapped in stars and stripes, there was cold comfort in ceremony.
Death pervaded the huge hangar, but no one spoke the word. Here, over the years, bodies had passed through from Vietnam, from Lebanon and other far-off conflicts. Now 10 "Screaming Eagles" -- as the proud 101st Airborne Division calls itself -- lay in a silent row.
More came tonight, and more will arrive over the next few days for autopsies at the military mortuary here.
"Theirs was the ultimate sacrifice made in line of duty," said the U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. He was accompanied by Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr. and Maj. Gen. Burton D. Patrick and Command Sergeant Major Nathaniel Moore, both of the 101st Airborne.
"Their service adds luster to the proud history of the U.S. Army and the 101st. Soldiers who follow behind them will know of their dedication, patriotism and sacrifice," Wickham said.
Marsh also paid tribute to the dead "who gave their lives in the service of their country. In a troubled world, they were the Peacekeepers. They were returning from a mission in support of our nation's commitment to world peace."
The 45-minute ceremony began with the U.S. Army band playing "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Amazing Grace" and other hymns. As a cargo plane, painted in camouflage, pulled up on the runway outside the hangar, an honor guard from the 101st Division assembled on the runway.
In one corner sat dignitaries, including Delaware Gov. Michael N. Castle and Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), as well as more than a dozen family members of crash victims. The identity of the bodies that arrived today has not been determined.
On the far side of the hangar, about 200 area residents and personnel from this sprawling Air Force base came to pay their respects. They couldn't hear the words of Marsh or Wickham, because the amplified sound echoed off the metal walls.
Nonetheless, they were moved.
"I have a son in the Army," said Joan Sozzi, a civilian clerk, crying into a hankerchief after the ceremony. "It could have been my son."
The random senselessness of the accident was on the mind of Emmett Davis, 62, a retired Air Force officer. "All those boys, to die at such a young age," he said. "Who knows what lives they might have led."