OFFICIALLY, the Postal Service won't begin marking the 50th anniversary of World War II until sometime late next year.

The service's commemorative plans are massive, unlike anything U.S. collectors have seen in recent years. According to bid proposals distributed to printers this summer, each of the five years of American participation in the war will be marked by the release of 10 commemorative stamps printed on special souvenir sheets that salute each year's key events.

In reality, however, the Postal Service's wartime commemoration began last month with the release of a 40-cent stamp honoring maverick Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault of Flying Tiger fame. The World War II stamp build-up will continue Oct. 13 in Abilene, Kan., with the debut of a 25-cent commemorative marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the European Allied commander during the war.

That stamp, the fourth U.S. stamp to carry the image of the 34th president, is perhaps more directly linked to the war than the Chennault stamp, which was part of the long-running Great Americans series.

Like the Eisenhower commemorative silver dollar coin released early this year, the new stamp carries two images of Eisenhower, one as president and the other as wartime general. The stamp features a full-color portrait of Ike without his famous grin or Army uniform.

What gives the stamp its World War II tone is the sepia-toned background: a view of Eisenhower chatting with his troops as they massed in England on the eve of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Europe.

The stamp will go on sale at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Eisenhower's boyhood home, during a weekend of events marking the centennial of his birth. Postal spokesman Frank Thomas said the stamp is being released a day ahead of Ike's birthdate to allow other cities with ties to the Eisenhower family, such as Gettysburg, Pa., where he had a farm, to use the stamp on the 14th in their celebrations.

Ken Hodges of Los Alamitos, Calif., created the Eisenhower stamp. His design draws heavily on the White House portrait and, as do most new stamps, uses a minimum of text. "Dwight David Eisenhower" appears above the portrait and the five stars of his military rank. In the lower right is the stamp's denomination, 25 cents, and the required "USA" lettering.

It was printed in sheets of 40 by American Bank Note Co. using the gravure process. What will make those sheets distinctive is the amount of text -- three long sentences -- that is on the margins, describing Eisenhower's career as soldier, college president and president.

Earlier this year, the service began adding biographical material to some sheets, ostensibly to give postal clerks information about some of the lesser-known subjects the stamps feature. But, if the Eisenhower stamp is a precursor, even well-known subjects will be getting extensive "marginal markings," as the Postal Service calls them.

Eisenhower's image seems certain to pop up again in the series of World War II stamps that are to be issued beginning next year. Each year's set of 10 stamps will compose a border around a map of "A World at War," according to the preliminary plans given the printers.

The first sheets will commemorate a mix of 1940 and 1941 events: the completion of the Burma Road into China, establishment of a peacetime draft, aid to Allies through the Lease-Lend Act, the establishment of mutual aims with Great Britain under the Atlantic Charter, the burgeoning American military-defense complex, the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James in the North Atlantic, the spread of civil defense programs in America, the first Liberty ship's construction, the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan the next day.

Bid notices, part of the Postal Service's effort to farm more stamp printing out to private industry, call for printing 35 million of the World War II stamps, well below the typical order of 160 million stamps per commemorative. The first set would have to be delivered by next summer and by Dec. 1 of each year through 1995.

INDIVIDUALS wishing to secure first-day cancellations of the Eisenhower stamps may either prepare their own envelopes with stamps purchased after Oct. 14 at their local post office or request postal workers to affix the stamps on up to 50 envelopes at a price of 25 cents per stamp. Collectors who purchase their stamps should mail their envelopes to: Customer-Affixed Envelopes, Eisenhower Stamps, Postmaster, 217 N. Buckeye, Abilene, KS 67410-9991. Requests for postal workers to affix the stamps should go to: Eisenhower Stamps, Postmaster, 217 N. Buckeye, Abilene, KS 67410-9992. All requests should be postmarked by Nov. 12.

Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.