The largest group of military jets since World War II lands at the base.

BRUNSWICK (AP) -Nearly three dozen Marine AV-8 Harrier jets that were assigned to duty in Iraq were headed home Friday, making a refueling stop at the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Base officials said the 32 aircraft made up the largest contingent of operational military jets to land at the base since World War II.

“These pilots have been in the thick of things. The ear-to-ear grins on their faces as they stepped out of their jets was unmistakable,” said Capt. Robert Winneg, the base’s commanding officer. “They are really happy to be back on U.S. soil.”

The Harriers, which have the capacity to hover like a helicopter, make vertical landings and takeoffs, and reach speeds of up to 600 mph, were scheduled to arrive last Wednesday. But bad weather over the Atlantic Ocean delayed their departure from air bases in Europe.

Each jet had to refuel eight times during their trans-Atlantic flight, a procedure that requires the jet to receive fuel midair from a tanker plane, said John James, spokesman for the base.

Once the pilots landed, they ate lobster rolls and were greeted by the base’s moose mascot. And they arrived in time to help the base observe Armed Forces Day on Saturday.

Capt. Ty Bachmann, a 29-year-old pilot stationed in Cherry Point, N.C., said he couldn’t wait to see his wife and two children, one of whom he has never held.

His youngest son was born Jan. 31, just a few weeks after Bachmann was deployed to the Middle East.

Bachmann, who was based on an aircraft carrier, said he flew missions in support of ground forces over Iraq, pinpointing enemy targets and firing laser guided weapons at Iraqi soldiers and military installations.

“I flew enough missions to not know how many,” Bachmann said.

AP-ES-05-17-03 1045EDT