HINESVILLE, GA. -- America's war machine here at sprawling Fort Stewart is moving out, M-1 tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles rumbling by rail for the nearby port of Savannah, desert-bound, young soldiers shaved high and tight, their skin gleaming between their ears, fuzzy tufts on top, gas masks at the ready, nervous, waiting.

Across the base, home to 17,000 soldiers with the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, specially trained for desert warfare, troops yesterday kept packing, venturing off base only in uniform and subject to one-hour recall, making last-minute calls home, buying extra canteens for water and for lotion to block the vicious Saudi sun, drawing up wills.

According to base sources, the bulk of heavy armor, helicopters and support gear was long gone or piled high waiting for a ride dockside at the Georgia Port Authority in Savannah, where four giant cargo ships, operated by the Military Sealift Command, have shoved off this week for Saudi Arabia, all cheered on by brass bands and flag-waving crowds hugging the riverbank. Five more ships, crewed by Merchant Marines and accompanied by a bare-bones contingent of about 100 soldiers each, were expected to sail over the next 10 days, stocked with everything from flak jackets to plywood to build a city in the desert, from 75,000 C rations to 17,000 NBC suits -- the nuclear-biological-chemical warfare garb intended to protect troops from Iraqi poison gas attacks.

"Just the other day, we ordered another 17,000, so if they're hit, they can throw one outfit away and put new ones on," said Lt. Col. Robert F. Lommel, 40, base director of logistics, hunkered down at his computer terminal. "In my view, everything depends on supply. If you've got enough stuff and can put it on a truck to get there, you can accomplish the mission. My battlefield is right here. We've got to move a city, arm it, get it there and feed it while it's going."

With base tension as high as soldiers' readiness status, dozens of soldiers interviewed guessed they would be flown out any day now to marry up with their equipment in the desert and join a U.S. military force estimated to go as high as 250,000 troops. "We just put our Bradleys on the train," said one soldier, a gunner on the fast vehicle, whose father served two tours in Vietnam. "I talked to him last week. He just said, 'Be careful over there.' "

Citing security, Army officials refused to discuss troop movements, but Maj. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, 24th "Mech" Division commander, looking fit in fatigues, his gray hair cut short, pops up frequently on base closed-circuit TV, playing a sort of military Mr. Rogers as he reassures soldiers they will at least have enough warning to hug loved ones goodbye, that their families will be taken care of in the rear.

"Sailing dates and movement of men are sensitive information," he said, apologizing for uncertainty. "What I can promise you is that your soldier will tell you personally before he or she moves out." He understood their concerns, he soothed, offering his wife's shoulder as support. "I can tell you she shares your worries. Our son is in the 82nd Airborne and shipped out a few days ago. ... You need to take care of each other and reach out" to take new military families under wing.

Nervous on his one-hour lunch break, Spec. 4 John Chavez, 22, figured he had just enough time to get married at the Liberty County Courthouse here yesterday, where applications for $31 marriage licenses and quick civil ceremonies have jumped since troops went on alert. Spilling into the hall, six other military couples waited their turn, giggling, holding hands, their big day moved up by rumors of war.

Chavez, a mortarman from Los Angeles, wore green camouflage fatigues, black boots spit-shined to high gloss. His bride, Karen Gehring, 32, a computer specialist he met on duty in Germany, donned a simple beige skirt and white blouse.

"I wanted my mom to come, but everything happened so fast," she sighed, "now that he's got to go."

"You want to keep your last name or take his?" asked probate clerk Lynn Pope. The bride froze, perplexed. "You can keep your last name, hyphenate it, or just add it on," Pope explained.

"Do I have to use them both?" she asked.

"You could write 'Karen G. Chavez,' " suggested Pope.

"You want to keep your last name, keep it," said Chavez, reassuring.

"I've just had my name so long, I'm so used to it ..."

"Keep it," he said, as the marriage license was issued and they slipped into Probate Judge Nancy Aspinwall's office. Chavez took his cap off and put his ammo pouch on a desk. It was a moving, 10-minute ceremony, with the judge instructing them to hold hands, face each other and recite their vows. She said the Lord's Prayer, then: "I pronounce you man and wife. Congratulations, would you like to kiss your bride?"

Indeed, he would, and did, and they held each other for a long time as Karen's eyes misted up and the hot Georgia sun baked the gray granite memorial to veterans of other wars outside the courthouse that flanked a cannon from the Revolutionary War. "Mr. and Mrs. Chavez, I just want you to know our hearts and prayers are with you," said the judge.

Next.

"Is everyone out here going to Saudi Arabia?" she asked couples in the hall. All nodded.

"It's like we had the rest of our lives planned perfectly," sighed Mount Holyoke graduate Renee Manasan, 24, who quit her job as a mortgage banker in Rosslyn, Va., to drive south and speed up her marriage to 2nd Lt. Chris West, 24, a West Point grad from Thomasville, Ga. More than 200 invitations to a Sept. 8 wedding have already gone out. Her grandparents had made reservations from the Philippines. After procuring their license here today, they aimed to marry Saturday. "Indications are we won't be sent for a few days," said West.

"I knew there might be a possibility he might have to go off to a war, but I didn't think it would be like this. I'm scared."

"It's fear of the unknown," said her fiance.

"GAS ATTACK!" shouted Gilbert Ziegler, 29, chemical warfare specialist for a bunch of tank jockeys with the 64th Armor Battalion, as his men scrambled for masks, drilling to kill the time. "You have nine seconds to get your mask on and expel all chemical agents. You have an additional six seconds to pull over your hood and cover all exposed areas."

Briefing them on deadly nerve gas and other toxic chemical weapons Iraq has used in the past, he urged them to stay alert for imminent gas attack, or other hints gas was in the air, like dead birds or animals. "If somebody puts on a mask, you put on yours," he barked. "If I take mine off, what do you do?"

"Watch you for a few minutes to see if you drop dead," offered a soldier.

Go to the head of the class, said Ziegler, an urgency in his voice. "They live and die by my word," he said. "They're well-trained. We're getting there."

Inside the company office, a gas mask race was on, with 2nd Lt. Danny James, 30, of Plymouth, N.C., challenging one of his troops to see how fast it could be done. Bets were placed, as families dropped in and looked on. "Go Daddy," cheered James's 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, as two men unsnapped their masks, holstered at the waist. Seven seconds later, James was declared the loser. "He's a dead man," laughed a colleague.

"Thanks for letting me win, sir," said Pvt. Ivy Burrus, 21.

"Getting gassed is something you never want to experience," allowed tank driver Craig Thomas, 22, of Denver. "I got gassed with tear gas at basic training. In 10 seconds, my nose was running on my feet, my eyes were watering. My lungs felt like they were on fire."

Which is nothing compared with the symptoms of poison gas Iraq has used on its rebel Kurds and others. "Muscle spasm," he recited, "tightness of breath, headaches. You don't put on your NBC suit fast, the alternative is pretty much death."

That's why tanks are the place to be in the desert, he said, with a filtered air supply, although they do lack air conditioning. He wore his chemical suit inside the $2 million M-1 last summer training in Germany. "You can't drive with the hatch open," he said. "Snipers might shoot you, so you sit there and after two or three days, you really hate life."

But that's not to say Thomas doesn't love tanks. "It was just something I wanted to try," he said, bumming around as a cook after high school, then signing up. "I loved the old war movies," but figured it was something he'd never experience. He was riveted by "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now."

"You can't see all that much from the inside of a tank, but like I told my mom, if we have to fight, the M-1 tank is one of the best places to be," he effused. "You do everything right, you can't miss your target, unless you're really dumb. If you can see it {an enemy tank} through the sight, chances are you can kill it."

Indeed, with a laser-guided cannon firing 105mm rounds, the M-1 can rocket along at 40 mph, blasting as she goes, said Capt. Russell Shumway, 29, commander of Bravo Company, whose motto is "No slack bulldogs."

"The Iraqis have mostly old Soviet tanks," he said. "I wouldn't consider it a contest. Our training is so incredible, we're ready to roll." How much better does he figure is his tank than say the Russian T-72 and the older T-54?

"No comparison," he said. "We're faster, they go maybe 20 mph and we have far more accurate fire control. We can shoot at 45 mph, they'd prefer to stop and shoot. Our night vision gear is better and we've got far better armor and greater range" (2,500 meters), although they fire a larger shell. "The bottom line is we can both kill each other," he added, but on training exercises in California's Mojave Desert, one M-1 easily dispatched four mock Soviet tanks driven by American soldiers posing as Russians.

"If we can hold them to four to one, them to us, we can beat him every day," said Shumway, if it ever comes to a tank showdown in the desert sands. "Of course, there hasn't been a major tank battle since World War II. Most of our doctrine comes from studying the Soviets in Afghanistan and interpolating the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Then there's the matter of few combat-tested troops. "I'd feel a little more comfortable if I had at least one Vietnam vet here," he said, firing up a filter tip.

"I thought you quit," said a soldier.

"Stress builds, you kind of go back to your old crutches," winked Shumway, son of a butcher from Wellsborough, Pa., who oversees 67 men, 14 tanks and two jeeps.

A few feet away, a handful of wives worked at sewing machines, stitching American flags on desert camouflage uniforms, drumming up diaper and milk money for any families who wind up short with their men overseas. "All we can do is pray and hope everything goes fine," sighed Marsha Smith, 37, a mother of three married to a platoon sergeant. "We got the word a week ago Friday.

"Our 15-year-old daughter was really counting on her dad being at the Miss Junior Teen Jacksonville Pageant," she said. "We kept it from her as long as we could, then sat her down and told her, 'You've seen the news. If your dad goes, it could get serious.' At first she didn't want to talk about it, then she kept asking, 'Will he be back in time?' She's seen him go on maneuvers, but she always knew he was coming back. Now she's asking, 'What do we do if he doesn't come back?' She cries a lot... ."

Suddenly, Smith burst into tears herself, as another wife handed her a desert uniform to dab her eyes, and four women embraced for comfort, their soldiers looking up from packing gas masks, helpless. At home, yellow ribbons adorn their mailboxes, telephone poles, car antennas. Married 19 years, the Smiths met as children growing up outside Tampa, married young. A son was born. Named after actor Clint Eastwood, he's 18 now, his father's weekend fishing buddy. "He calls every day, wants to know if his daddy's gone yet," said Smith. Then came daughter Regena, then their adopted son, Michael, 9. "No matter what time it is, we're going to take the kids to see him off," she said, "make sure they know Daddy loves them and he knows they love him."

"I'm crying on the inside, trying not to on the outside," said Valerie Alligood, 41, a new military wife. No Army wife wants trouble at home to distract a husband in the field.

"You've got to deal with your problems alone," counseled Candace Padilla, married to a former Green Beret with the unit. "You want his mind on what he's doing. He makes a mistake, he might not come home."

Along General Screven Highway, soldiers poured into Liberty Pawn Shop to hock stereos, watches, guns, for last-minute cash. "This will help," said Pfc. William Adams, 22, of Albany, N.Y., pawning his $400 Kenwood amplifier for $40. Some were buying gifts, insect repellent, whatever. Others wanted knives, long sharp ones, up to the 10-inch limit.

"A lot of the boys are scared," said manager Jolly Schlief, 35, leaning on a display case of unredeemed .45 pistols, Uzi submachine guns and .357 magnums. "I would be too, everything you hear on the news about chemical warfare, what that Iraq fella {Saddam Hussein} did to his own people." Schlief reached into a display case, retrieved a nasty-looking, serrated "survival" knife, a hot seller to soldiers shipping out. "They've been told they can't carry their personal handguns over there, so they're buying these."

He grinned. "Sharp on both sides. You stick it in and wiggle it around, you can do some serious damage. I call it our death knife." He held up another, a long green jungle knife. "This one can cut barbed wire, or you can mount it on a rifle, use it as a bayonet."

All in all, however, local businessmen were as glum as many of the troops. "If you live by the military, you die by the military," said James Roberson, 42, who owns three pawn shops, 50 rental cars (only seven leased for a weekend that's normally sold out), a finance company. "Troops ship out, the money dries up here."

Indeed, he was buying appliances from young wives selling refrigerators and stoves, moving "back to Mama because they don't know how long soldiers will be gone." On the bright side, he was selling last-minute wedding bands, saber-rattling inspiring romance -- and improved domestic attitudes.

"He's much more caring and responsible these days," says Melissa Quintana, 23, of her husband, expected to leave any day now.

"Mine too," said Karen Martinez, 26, laughing at how her boyfriend had shown her much more attention lately, no barroom forays with the boys, no late nights out.

It was a girls' night out at Pizza Hut, as the two friends commiserated over a hamburger pizza, counting the moments left with their beaus. "I'd rather he be a little less responsible and stay alive and be here with me," said Martinez. "It's scary when you think about it. He came home for lunch today, but he only had one hour. We're living together. He's nervous, but tries not to show it."

All night long, trucks rumbled through the main gate at the Georgia Port Authority Terminal outside Savannah, big 18-wheelers loaded with everything the troops will need to survive in the desert. "You carrying water or suntan lotion?" asks Gary Andrews, 53, leaning out of the guard shack to quiz the driver of a K mart semi.

"Lotion," he says. Andrews, a beefy ex-Army sergeant, a .45 at his hip, root beer in hand, waves him on.

"I hear they're getting 5,800 cases of sunblock," he says. In fact, the Army has been in such a hurry, it went on a shopping spree at K mart here, ordering 2,400 cans of bug spray, 5,550 bottles of sunblock, 5,550 tubes of lip balm, 5,550 containers of foot powder, 5,550 bottles of skin lotion.

Also on the shopping list phoned in last Friday, according to a K mart manager, were 174,000 gallons of bottled water. Earlier this week, manager Wesley Bennefield had rounded up 84,000 gallons and was scrambling for the rest. Sometimes, "We have to go to various vendors to obtain whatever we think is necessary for the protection {and} welfare of our soldiers," said Maj. Donald Keeling, Fort Stewart's public affairs officer.

Another security guard, Jerry McKenzie, 45, also a Vietnam veteran, relieved Andrews and wondered where his son, David, 21, a Bradley driver, would be going. "He called me last Sunday night and told me he just got called up" at Fort Hood, Tex., where he's with the 1st Cavalry Division.

"All I could say was, 'Son, take care of yourself, be careful, and do the best you can and pray you make it back.' I told him how it was in Vietnam, but he's never been in combat. I was one of the lucky ones, I've seen enough.

"He did say he was a little bit afraid, and I said, if he wasn't, he'd be lying. I told him, 'I know what it is, son, I been there.' Hopefully this will blow over, but it doesn't look good, does it?"

At the Family Assistance Center on base, wives and couples sat with counselors to put their legal and financial affairs in order, rumors of stays from six months to three years making the rounds. "My boyfriend was on the first ship out," said Pam Campbell, the family support director. She looked tired, draggy. "I go home, I can't sleep, so I work, this keeps my mind off everything."

A burning smell wafted from a microwave. Pizza burning. "Oh, wait! Holy cow!" she said, racing for the oven.

"I just hope they do what they gotta do and get back quickly," said Birgit Drakeford, 24, married to an E-4 in the signal corps. They have an 18-month-old daughter. She was waiting for a counselor. "I never know if I'll see him again or not."

They met in Germany, where she was a nurse, during his last tour. Her grandfather, drafted into Hitler's infantry, fought as a soldier in the Third Reich on the Russian front, spent three years as a Soviet POW. "Hussein is a lot like Hitler," she said. "They both want everything, to run the world, to have power, to be loved by their people. But they're ruthless, they'll do anything to get what they want ...

"My grandfather still has bullets in him, where the Russians shot him. You can feel them."

It was past midnight and Pfc. Charlie Parrett, 22, threw back a Coors Light at Cracker Jack's, seeking inspiration from a barmaid named Rosie, a k a Rosemary Amundson, 19.

Here she comes now, pulling out a snapshot of herself in a teensy weensy, gold lame' bikini that won her a place in the swimsuit contest the other night. Parrett slips it in his pocket. Does she have perhaps aspirations to become a Jane Russell of the '90s, inspiring troops like the '40s actress whose sultry pose on a haystack caressing a six-shooter kept GI spirits up in the last truly glorious war?

"Who's Jane Russell?" she asks. "I just want him to hurry up and fight, get it over with so he can come back and see me. No GIs is bad business for us girls."

Outside on the marquee, soldiers are invited to PARTY! It's Ladies Night, drinks are 50 cents, and 2 Live Crew blasts from the loudspeakers, the nasty version. Charlie Parrett and others jam the bar, the same age as troops who left for Vietnam, only lacking national self-doubt this time out of the box. "We're ready," he says, bravado busting out all over. "The best thing about it is the country seems to be behind us all the way."

Suddenly, he grows subdued, remembering his father, a Vietnam veteran who died in a truck accident when Parrett was 9 years old. "I know he'd be proud of me," says the small-town farm boy from Circleville, Ohio, "if he knew I was following in his footsteps." His grandfather, too, was a soldier, World War II, a medic. "I'm third generation."

He's beaming now, proud, blue eyes a bit misty, maybe a little homesick for family he left last weekend when he was home for a brother's wedding. "Tell 'em I love 'em all and I'll be home soon because I'm too ornery to die."