President Bush came to North Carolina Friday to tell it to the Marines, and later to the Air Force.

And they in turn told the president that he is, as one Marine placard proclaimed, ``the wind behind the storm' - Operation Desert Storm.More than 5,000 leathernecks and their families at the Cherry Point Marine Air Station loved what the president had to say - especially when ex-Navy man Bush quoted another Navy man, the late Adm. William ``Bull' Halsey, who once said the Marines are not only the nation's most elite fighting force, but the world's.

``And I agree,' Bush said just after daybreak in a drafty hangar whose planes and crews were away fighting the Persian Gulf war.

Looking into a sea of signs - ``Dear Mr. President, please take care of my daddy and my uncle Barry,' said one - Bush made reference to the ``the few, the proud, the Marines.'

He said it was not surprising that Marines fought the first ground fight in the gulf.

``We are on course, we are on schedule, and things go well,' Bush shouted, giving a progress report on the war.

If he came with a message, so did his audience, including one woman who made the president laugh and lose his concentration when she held up a T-shirt adorned with a raunchy cartoon that Saddam Hussein would not find funny.

Spouses and children of Marines used the presidential visit to good advantage. Knowing that CNN was televising the rally and that gulf troops were watching, loved ones brought written words from home.

``Daddy you are my hero - love Laura,' a daughter's sign said.

``We support our flag, troops, president and son, PFC Randy Meyers,' a mother's sign said. It contained a huge photo of the young Marine.Even after Bush left the hangar, wives and children rushed to the press platform to continue waving signs. They hoped TV cameras were still on.

``Curly call home,' said Honna Kozik's sign. Her husband, who flies a Marine Harrier jet, is somewhere in the gulf.

``I haven't talked to him in a month,' she said. ``I have been trying so hard to reach him. I just want him to call.'

Later in the morning, Bush spoke to another friendly crowd at Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro, about 60 miles away.

Standing along U.S. 70, spectators waved and snapped photos of approaching Air Force One, a brand-new blue-and-cream jumbo jet with the presidential seal and ``United States of America' in big letters on each side. It descended slowly over a mobile home lot, the highway and some trees before landing on the air base runway.

There, Bush became a cheerleader for the nation's youngest branch of service, the Air Force. Two squadrons of F-15E fighter planes from Seymour Johnson have been heavily involved in the war.

``The men and women from Seymour Johnson are doing a fantastic job for this country, and we are very, very grateful,' Bush said. ``I just want you to know how grateful the nation is to this entire team.'

Bush was making his first appearance outside Washington since the gulf war began more than two weeks ago. North Carolina, his first stop, has more troops involved in the war effort than any other state.

At Cherry Point, the base's morale, welfare and recreation office had about 6,000 American flags to hand out to the audience, which began arriving before 6 a.m. to wait in long lines to be searched before entering the hangar.

It was so cold that Bush kept his blue topcoat on throughout the speech, and at times he appeared to shiver.

During his speech, Bush suddenly laughed and looked at the front row of spectators and said, ``What's this T-shirt up here?' The audience applauded knowingly.

Later, when Bush waded into the crowd to shake hands and hug children, Teresa Sciandra and her young daughter, Tammy, pushed their way to the front and handed Bush the shirt. It showed a camel with a scud missile in his mouth as an Iraqi with a sledgehammer prepared to slam the animal in its private parts. The cartoon was titled ``Mobile Scud Missile Launcher.'

Bush laughed, ``but he said he couldn't show it to the cameras,' Sciandra said later outside the hangar.

An array of Marine helicopters, fighter planes and tanks served as a background to the platform from which Bush spoke.

Bush sensed what the audience wanted to know - when the troops will come home - and he made them a promise that brought a thunderous roar.

``We will stay in the gulf as long as necessary,' he said, ``but not one day longer.'

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