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82nd Airborne celebrates its 50th


WILLOW GROVE, Pa. -- The C-141s came in from the north with the weight of history and the lightness of air.

Pvt. Mike Junio of nearby Philadelphia was fifth in line, in the first plane, on the first pass over Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

At that moment, 800 feet above the ground in a windowless airplane, the 20-year-old paratrooper wasn't thinking about the 50 years the Army's 82nd Airborne Division has been doing operations like this; wasn't thinking about the World War II campaigns in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Normandy, or the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, or Grenada, or Panama, or, most recently, the Desert Storm operation in Iraq.

Mr. Junio was concerned with what paratroopers of every era think about before taking the leap of faith into air and pure gravity.

"Every time it's like the way it was the first jump," Mr. Junio said. "The chute always opens, but suppose it doesn't?"

In a sky of luminous blue, every chute opened yesterday, and the troops drifted down to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 82nd's designation -- on Aug. 15, 1942 -- as the Army's first airborne division.

More than 2,000 veterans and active members of the division called "America's Guard of Honor" are holding their 46th convention through tomorrow at the Valley Forge Convention Center, and the jump by 450 paratroopers drew thousands of spectators to the roads rimming the sprawling naval air facility.

The paratroopers did not disappoint, though two who tangled in midair gave spectators a breathless several seconds as one chute "stole the air" from the other and they plummeted toward unforgiving asphalt below.

About 100 feet from the ground they separated just enough to manage a rough but safe landing.

The 82nd convention, which was to hold a memorial service today, gives the young paratroopers a chance to share heritage and history with old-timers.

"We'll have people from 18 to 80," said Daniel Campbell, 58, the association's executive secretary for the last 10 years.

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