RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, WEST GERMANY -- They've been traveling for 20, 40, sometimes 60 hours, and when they finally land here at the pivotal point of the largest American airlift in decades, the troops are ready to resume practicing the primary military maneuver of the Persian Gulf crisis thus far: the "huaw."
That, a group of fighter jet pilots explains, is military jargon for hurry-up-and-wait.
This is the last rest stop before the gulf. It is where soldiers already dressed in desert fatigues deposit themselves under a tree for their last shut-eye in a temperate climate. It is where troops storm the PX and stock up on cassettes, junk novels and candy bars. And it is where the men's room walls have become the barometer of the hopes and boasts of troops arriving from such diverse places as South Carolina, California and Hawaii.
"You want to see how the men really feel, check out the graffiti," said a platoon leader who watched his troops stiltedly respond to questions under the careful eye of an Air Force public affairs officer.
Some of the less scatological scrawlings of the gulf-bound men include: "Better dead than a towel head," "Nuke a sheik and watch him freak" and "82nd Airborne Now Appearing in Arabian Wonderland Vacation."
Since U.S. forces began pouring thousands of troops and millions of pounds of supplies and equipment into the gulf region, Rhein-Main, the American base that shares runways with Germany's busiest airport, Frankfurt International, has become the stopover point for a large portion of the airlift.
The Air Force's 435th Tactical Airlift Wing is handling four times the usual amount of air traffic, a tent city has sprung up just off the main runway, and news-starved soldiers are buying up towering stacks of USA Today and Stars and Stripes, the military daily.
"It's been so busy, there are times when we have aircraft sitting on the runway waiting for a parking spot," said Col. Thomas Mikolajcik, the base commander. Although the Air Force won't divulge the number of C-5 and C-141 transports that land here each day, West German air traffic officials say the flow into the Rhein-Main base has shot up from about 40 flights a day to 80 flights a day in the past three weeks.
With many of the base's 4,000 military personnel working 12-hour shifts, Mikolajcik's concern is that their collective energy not be exhausted.
"This is not like Grenada or Panama," Mikolajcik said. "They were sprints. This is a marathon. We must pace ourselves to do this next week, next month and however long this goes on."
The amount of work is straining not only human but also mechanical capacities. Although the base commander denied it, maintenance workers at Rhein-Main said the frequent and heavy loads of recent weeks have produced structural wing cracks on several C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft, which were made in the mid-1960s.
"Some of them are flying with weight restrictions because of the problems," said Sgt. Thuron Bowman, a maintenance worker at the base. "But they're tough old birds. And we don't let them leave here with problems."
Last Wednesday a C-5A Galaxy loaded with cargo for Saudi Arabia crashed and burned on takeoff from Ramstein Air Base, 80 miles southwest of here. The plane was scheduled to stop here en route to the gulf. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the crash, in which 13 airmen were killed.
Rhein-Main has geared up to provide hot showers, cots and even entertainment for 1,600 troops a day, said Sgt. Orville Allen, who calls himself "mayor of Tent City." Allen has installed VCRs in each tent, volleyball courts and heating systems in case the tents are still in use this winter.
Rhein-Main is much more than a rest stop. Its lawyers have had what Mikolajcik calls "a large business in wills and powers of attorney, something people don't think about till the last minute." And the base chaplains say they have been swamped by soldiers who use their few hours on the ground to confess or seek counsel.
Attitudes toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the U.S. military buildup in the gulf vary considerably. Although many in a planeload of Marines who arrived last week said they were itching to "do something already," others were in no hurry to see any action.
"It's not for me to decide," said Lance Cpl. Jeff Waller from Duluth, Minn. "I'm a soldier. I go where I'm told. I don't have to like it."
"I'd rather be going over and waiting there than sitting home and watching TV," said Maj. Craig Wilcox, an F-15E pilot who arrived in Germany from Phoenix.
Capt. Randy Garrett, another pilot, sat thumbing through a pile of newspapers, waiting for his flight to the gulf. "It's going to be an awful lot of this, sitting and waiting. I brought a baseball glove and a ball and a few decks of cards. We're well prepared to wait Saddam out."
Not everyone is so patient. Several groups of West German citizens have begun organizing protests against the dramatic increase in U.S. flights at Rhein-Main, complaining that the airlift, which is conducted largely at night, has made it impossible to sleep within 20 miles of the base.
"There is no full hour in which one can sleep," said Rolf Denk, the leader of Interested Citizens Against Flight Noise. "These planes come in low and it sounds like a dentist drilling. It's painful. We are the punished ones here, not Iraq."
Frankfurt's conservative newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung, agreed that the flights are disrupting the lives of local residents, but added, "As annoying as this noise may be, we cannot expect the Americans to play the role of global policeman and then complain about flight noise."