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ARMY VETERANS MEET TO MARK AIRBORNE’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY

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Former paratrooper Chuck Beckman watched and remembered Saturday as a group of modern Army Airborne troops marched past him in combat dress, their backs straight, jaws out and berets cocked just so.

"We were tough," he said, "but I don't know if we were that tough."Beckman, from Southern Pines, N.C., was one of several thousand former paratroopers who gathered in Washington over the weekend and held a parade Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of America's Airborne military.

Former paratroopers from World War II, like Beckman, as well as those from the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the periods in between and since, also took part.

Some marched, and others chose to watch. Alex Madsen, 69, of Solvang, Calif., watched from a park bench with a friend from the old days, H.G. Bennett, 73, of Sun City, Ariz.

"You know, we've spent a lot of money just to come to a bull session," Madsen joked.

Both were members of the 507th Airborne Regiment, headquarters company, and both parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, 1944. They also parachuted at the Rhine crossing in 1945.

There were veterans from all periods, but the World War II crowd, the original paratroopers, were most in evidence.

The brass also was there. Retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who was U.S. military commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, received the marching men's salutes at a reviewing stand.

Only 13 men marched with the original 501st parachute batallion, which was formed in 1940. In other groups, some rode in wheelchairs or walked on crutches, and some wore what they could of their old uniforms.

"It's air conditioned," one marching veteran said to the crowd, tugging at the jacket that no longer met in the middle.

The all-black 555th Battalion also marched.

Charles McCloed, 63, of Philadelphia, became a member of the 555th in 1946, volunteering after a year in Germany with Army intelligence. He served until 1950, and he recalled when the order to integrate came in 1948. The battalion was made a part of another unit.

"It was just on paper," he said. "We stayed in the same place, at Fort Bragg. We just changed the patches on our shoulders."

Paratroopers have always been a close-knit group, in a way that transcended boundaries of race or rank, he said. "I don't care whether it's a general or a private, today we all just say, `How you doing, trooper,' " McCloed said.