THIS IS A WHALE OF A YARN, ripe for the movies,

but is it true as it purports to be? And does doubt about its truth invalidate the book and condemn its publication?

This is what the reader is asked to believe: that on May 9, 1952, during the Korean War, a Marine lieutenant and five enlisted men (the five more or less forced to participate) were parachuted into Chinese Manchuria on a covert CIA mission to destroy a communist atomic laboratory complex hidden within part of the Sungari river reservoir, and that the then 17-year-old author, Lawrence "Rick" Gardella, was one of the five; that the deed was done with derring-do, and that, with the aid of various anti-communist Chinese irregulars, led by a beautiful and skilled woman whom Rick dubbed "the Dragon Lady" and who would bear him twin sons, our hero crossed "a thousand miles in 22 violent days through the heart of China with death stalking us every step of the way," slaughtering various and sundry Chinese and Russian soldiers along that way across the Great Wall and through Peking, eventually reaching the Yellow Sea where he alone was rescued by an American submarine. Add to this the mysterious CIA direction of the whole affair, including the clear intention that nobody was expected to return and that when one did turn up it was either him or them and so our hero killed the startled lot of CIA agents, too.

Furthermore, our hero, Rick, broke his vow of silence 27 years later only because he blurted out part of the story while in a partial coma and thereupon his priest and his family urged him to write it all down, which he did in five months, just before dying of leukemia last February 16, "as this book was going into production." As a fillip, our hero's Massachusetts apartment was mysteriously broken into, then his wife was "beaten and left bloody and dazed," and, finally, he was offered a $25,000 bribe if he would "forget about trying to have your story published."

Don't neglect to have our hero tell the tale in the first person, jampacked with more dialogue than any tape recorder could have caught. Fill the book with an assortment of characters that include one Joseph Roberts, who carries "a small blue card" identifying him as the villainous CIA operative whose part is tailor-made for the likes of Gordon Liddy. Add a huge red-headed Mongol chieftain, various Scotch, Irish and Australian adventurers, two Belgian nuns, the President of the United States, handy radios for contacting the rescue sub, a passing glimpse of Mao. Don't forget to include half a dozen American POWs held in three-by-three foot cages in Peking.

Let there be plenty of blood, thunder and hints for the special effects man: "I grabbed the knife from my belt and drove it into the neck of one man just above the collarbone, pulled it out and went for the neck of the other." "He lay there motionless, and I saw that he was dead, killed by a shot in the middle of the forehead. I went on backing off and firing, in a scene as near to hell as I hope I ever get--the bodies, the smoke, the flames from fires started by the explosions, the new blasts as the fires spread." And a tender moment: "I pressed her slim little body against mine. I could feel every inch of her, from her face down to her toes, responding."

A title for all this? Take it from the code message designed to rescue the villainous CIA operative but which instead saves our hero. In fact, it is a terrible title, doubtless the first thing to be changed for the movie or TV show.

All of this is enough to make the reader visualize various publishers, agents, authors, editors and whoever, coffee cups at hand, gathered around some table plotting out a sure-fire tale, though there's no evidence it happened that way either. And how to protect your flanks against charges that the whole thing is fabricated? Have our hero ask on the last page: "What do Marine Corps records say about me and the special force? That I never left the States, that the medical records of my stay in the naval hospital were destroyed by fire, and that there are no records that any of the men with me--Damon, Masters, Holden, White or Craig--was ever in the Corps." Just to be sure, manage to have all those other Marines killed off along the way, save the one who remains behind in darkest China.

What gives verisimilitude to this story, of course, are the revelations of recent years of what the CIA had been up to back in those years. It is no surprise to have the Marine Corps state that, indeed, there is no record of a Lt. Kenneth Francis Damon and that the names of the others cannot, if only because not given in full, be checked against the files. It is a surprise to hear that the Corps didn't know that Rick Gardella was dead. The Corps says that Gardella did enlist and was discharged when he says. He was a Pfc., as stated. That he served only in the United States is indicated. Still, there's nothing new about expunging records of those on secret missions.

Could the alleged facts fit the known facts; in short, could it have happened?

First, those who should know now say that the Senate probe of the CIA turned up nothing about drops into China. However, it is a known fact that two CIA operatives, John Downey and Richard Fecteau, were captured on Nov. 9, 1952, and that the Chinese said they had been air dropped into the same general area as in Gardella's account. David Wise and Thomas Ross in The Invisible Government wrote that "China claimed that, all told, it had killed 106 American and Chinese agents parachuted into China between 1951 and 1954 and captured 124 others." In 1973 President Nixon acknowledged Downey's CIA role in order to free him from life imprisonment. Fecteau had been released in 1971.

Second, those who should know say the United States to this day has no knowledge of any Chinese nuclear activity in Manchuria or anywhere else as early as 1952, although there may have been rumors or reports of same. What the United States was trying to learn then concerned China's non-nuclear capabilities. It was not until 1957 that the Russians first lent China a hand in nuclear developments. Thomas Powers' book on Richard Helms and the CIA states that "four-man agent teams were air dropped" into China after the 1950 Chinese entry into the Korean War, "perhaps six teams a year," but that they were unsuccessful and presumably composed only of Chinese Nationalists.

So what is the reader to conclude? Perhaps the best clue is to be found in the book's acknowledgements where Gardella thanks two friends "who showed me how to begin," "a journalist who believed," an editor "who worked so hard in fashioning the final book" and an agent described as "a man of his word." That agent, Jacques de Spoelberch, of Norwalk, Connecticut, now says he got to know the author well, that the ex-Marine taped and typed "essentially the story" as presented and that the editing is a "very fair reflection of his own voice." He also reports lots of movie and TV interest in the book. And he says the book was turned down by many publishers because of doubts about its authenticity.

Personally, I doubt that Rich Gardella was dropped into China but I don't exclude that possibility. This high-school dropout certainly didn't write such prose alone; at most, he furnished the bare bones onto which his acknowledged friends put the meat. And it strikes me that the publisher has yet to come clean about the origins of the book. Still, that alone does not condemn its publication. However, Dutton's press release is headed "controversy surrounds publication," an old gambit for creating controversy--and sales. In sum, I suspect that fact and fiction are blurred together in this one. But I have to nconcede I'll go to see the movie.