In a soft rain, in the cool, muted light, the women stand in a silent circle as Dora Seymour lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A slim young soldier escorts her to the monument; the green leaves stand silhouetted against the white marble. A bugler steps forward and plays taps, and the long, lonely notes hang upon the air. Josephine Holmes stands quite still as the tears glisten underneath her glasses. She finds a faded photograph in the wallet in her purse. "He took my darling, my son, in the South Pacific," she says. "Oh, may he rest in peace, may they all rest in peace, these wonderful young men. I'm sure they're all in heaven now. Patriotism is like a prayer, it's the same thing, isn't it?"

They are the keepers of the flames of pride and patriotism, and they are not the flightly kind. Most of them are still married to the same men to whom they waved goodbye when the men marched off to war, and they are true to the same ideals. They have lived their lives, raised their children and nurtured their hopes in an America of small towns and pragmatic vision and they have been good daughters to their dreams; they are not the kind who waiver.

This band of clear-eyed women, including Josephine Holmes and Dora Seymour, came to the Capital Hilton over the weekend to take part in the 29th annual Women's Forum on National Security. Members of 15 different patriotic organizations and women's auxiliaries, from the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., to the Women Marines Association, gathered, their camaraderie born of experiences that exist only in myths, not memories, for the generation that succeeded them. This year they rode into town on a rising tide of vindication, certain in their conviction that trendy contempt for their values has been routed and that this country of theirs has come finally to its senses. "The pendulum is finally swinging back," said a relieved Adelene Smith. "The late '60s really hit the pits. People are more aware now of what the reality is. After all, we live with the hope that there never will be another war, but human nature is a stange bit of substance."

The ballroom in which they held their meetings was ablaze with flags and rang with martial music. The Marine Corps Band was a special hit: "Anyone who doesn't get thrilled by that is dead," said one woman as the last drum beat died away. They listened to lectures on foreign affairs and terrorism and heard the dark statistics comparing Russian and American miliatry preparedness. "We've got to get back a sense of ownership, quality and the work ethic," admonished Admiral Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations. "We've got to be sure we're getting our bucks' worth." When there was a break in the proceedings, they sang songs -- "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" were particular favorites. Rosy Riveters

"I think anyone who came after the [World War II] period these women lived through would find it very hard to understand what it was like," said Frances Connor, who for 25 years worked as liaison officer for women's organizations at the Department of Defense, and who was on hand to receive the Forum's Special Molly Pitcher Award on National Security. "While their husbands share the enormous camaraderie that came from having fought together, they share one of their own -- they were the Rosie the Riveters who got their first taste of working outside of the home, they shared experiences, they shared sacrifices. The country was so together then -- people displayed the blue star in their windows if they had someone overseas and they were very proud. If there was a death, it changed to a gold star, and you were proud even in your sorrow. You were really in there pitching -- you took the jobs, you kept the home together, you wrote the uncomplaining letters to the front, and there was no question about it. The threat was such a perceptible one."

Connor lost her first husband to the threat; he was a Navy pilot who died in April of 1944. After his death, she tried to enlist -- "I was kind of flaming with the spirit." When she found she would have to relinquish custody of her two daughters, she gave the idea up and as the war drew to a close, she became very interested in the problems of the war widow. "There they were, thrown out on their own, forced to be the breadwinner with very few opportunities in the small towns many of them came from, or places to look for support -- there were no food stamps, no school lunch program -- in many cases, the American Legion auxiliary was the only network of support that existed."

Still, said Conner, "it was mostly up to you.You had to stand on your own two feet. That's why you see a lot of support here for President Reagan's budget cuts -- these people understand standing on your own two feet. rIf you didn't, you starved."

Connor has retired from the government now and moved to San Diego, but she plans to join the American Legion Auxiliary. "I think it's an important force in this country," she said. "It's a recognized force in the grass roots, one of the things that knits people together. Even in the smallest towns, as you drive across country, you may not find much of a downtown, but you'll find the church, the school, the courthouse and the American Legion hall." Hard Times

Marcella Davidson, 65, and Rae Shaw, 70, shake their silvered heads and smile wry smiles as they remember what it was like to be national presidents of the American Legion Auxiliary back in 1969, when it was Davidson's turn, and in 1970, when Shaw took over. "The year I was president was our 50th anniversary," says Davidson, who was born in Clovis, N.M., and has lived there all her life. "The national convention was in Portland, Ore., that year. All the hippies and the dissidents were there, but we had our parade and rode in open cars just the same as we always have. I thought my husband would have a fit. It's changing now, though. Ever since the hostages came back, you see more patriotism, you see the old spirit coming back. Of course, for us, it never left, you know. For us, it's a way of life."

Rae Shaw wore nothing but red, white and blue the year she was president and even now, she says, "I put my flag out every day. I just feel a little bit more patriotic that way." For years, she did volunteer work in the veteran's hospital at Danville, Ill., and she tells the story of a Korean War veteran whom she visited every week, and who for weeks would not say a word to anyone. One week she didn't come, and the next week when he saw her, he smiled. "I said, 'What shall we talk about,' and he said 'Baseball,' and so we did," Shaw remembers. "You got a first-hand idea of what they gave to this country," she says.

"This is the trouble, you see; no one knows about sacrafice," she says. "But it really does affect us, you know, going through these things, seeing what they've been through. Don't you think so, Marcella?" Davidson nods and squeezes her hand and they sit for a moment together in quiet contemplation. The Polish Post

Jane Pendzich joined the Polish Legion of American Veterans Ladies Auxiliary because her mother-in-law told her to, and, since she was living with her mother-in-law while her husband was away, it seemed like a good idea. She was a bride of four months when her husband shipped off first to England, and then, on D-Day, to France, and she was a mother and an expert on the byzantine rules of the rationing system when he returned.Her husband eventually became commander of his post of the PLAV, and in 1963, she became the head of her auxiliary chapter when the old woman who had run things became seriously ill.

The first thing Pendzich did was to change the language in which the meetings were conducted. "I had to," she said. "They were in Polish," you see, and I don't speak Polish."

Pendzich is now the national president of the auxiliary, and she likes the way the forum lifts her spirits. "There are moments when you say, 'Hey, is this really necessary,' and then you come to this and you go back all gung-ho again."

During the war, Pendzich says, she could never understand why her mother-in-law would go out every week to the soldiers' home, all the way across town on the northwest side of Milwaukee. "She was a tremendously heavy woman, and when she came back, she would have to soak her feet for hours," she remembers. Now, however, Pendzich herself volunteers at the Veterans Hospital, and now she understands. "These are people who have been put in the hospital because they served their country," she said. "We owe them this. We owe them a lot more." Liberal's Children

Geraldine Hobble met her husband on the bus to Isabel, Kan., and being a single lady, and a schoolteacher to boot, she was a little shy sitting down next to a soldier. But it turned out he used to play with the little boy who lived next to her grandmother, and that made them practically old friends. When he got back from the war, they got married and lived in Liberal, Kan., which is a place on a map, not a point on a political spectrum, at least as far as Geraldine Hobble is concerned.

They raised a daughter and two sons in Liberal. "They're nothing special," she says, in her laconic Kansas way. "But we never had to get them out of jail. We've always been a religious family, but that didn't keep me from worrying a great deal when they attended a high school where 80 percent of the students smoked pot. The boys were Eagle scouts, and they went to ROTC when it wasn't the most popular thing to do, but mostly they were just good solid American kids."

Hobble has joined the auxiliary mostly because her husband joined the Legion, and together they went to the covered dish dinners and the Saturday night dances that formed the nucleus of the town's social life. But there was more to it than that, of course, and it dismayed her when the Vietnam veterans returned and they and their wives were reluctant to join. "We had a little problem reaching the Vietnam veterans," she says. "They just weren't the joiner type, I guess. Of course, it was a time when patriotism was not very popular and they were not about to associate themselves with an organization with that kind of stigma, I guess you'd call it."

They're coming back now, she says, "now that patriotism isn't such a dirty word anymore." Not that Hobble understands how on earth it ever got to be that way. A few years ago, she came east for a convention up in Massachusetts and she remembers going to see the place where the Mayflower landed. She stood there for a long time, she remembers, "wondering what those people had come from, what they had encountered, that they were willing to put to sea in such a tiny little ship and to come here and put up with the winter and the wilderness and such. And then to watch the ship sail off, leaving them all alone." She shakes her head, breaking the reverie. "And then we complain about what we have here. It just doesn't make much sense to me." The Forum Fades

The 29th annual Women's Forum on National Security will, in all likelihood, also be the last annual Women's Forum on National Security. Inflation has made it increasingly difficult for the delegates to afford the trip and the hotel accommodations, and, at $2,000 a shot, there hasn't been exactly been a white sale on speakers either. "Ten years ago, any congressman on the Hill would have been proud to come down to talk to us, but not any more," said Dora Seymour, Forum chairman and national president of the American Legion Auxiliary.

But if the Forum is fading, the Auxiliary is growing stronger. There are about 994,000 members currently and the goal, according to Seymour, who is also the former mayor of Bird City, Kan., is "a million and one in '81." Daughters of the Union

"Oh my dear, you have no idea what it's like to come up with all these ideas," sighed Marguerite Lewis, the national president of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, Inc. For a dollar donation to the fund that will buy a fire alarm system for the Daughters' Civil War Museum, one can participate in the drawing for a handprinted tablecloth decorated with sunflowers or a latchhook rug with an American eagle design. Finances have been a problem what with the membership failing off at such a pace -- in Kansas alone, the number of chapters, or tents, as they are called, has gone from 34 to 9. "So many of the members have died, you see," Lewis explains. "Or else they're in nursing homes now."

Despite such concerns, Lewis dearly loves the Forum and will be sorry to see it go. "There are such important people here, they're real important and, oh, it's just so exciting to feel like you're on the inside of something so important."