DOVER, DEL. -- It sits on a sprawling, wind-blown, fenced-off plain a couple miles south of a tiny town that goes back to William Penn and the 18th century. In the techno-horrid world of F-15 Strike Eagles and F4-G Wild Weasels, the name has nothing to do with cobblestones and quaint village greens and a state capital. Dover: You say it in that context and your inner eye does the rest. What you see are rows of boxes covered with flags. What you see are stiff-spined honor guards. What you see is a giant blue corrugated aluminum airplane shed where the American dead have once again come home.

The Marines who died in that 1983 truck-bombing massacre in Beirut: They came back to Dover.

Those seven astronauts of the space shuttle Challenger: They came back to Dover.

Those 200-odd soldiers and crewmen who went down at Gander, Newfoundland: They came back to Dover.

Those 37 Navy servicemen who lost their lives when Iraqi missiles hit the U.S.S. Stark 3 1/2 years ago: They came back to Dover.

During Vietnam 21,693 bodies came through Dover Air Force Base.

For the last 22 years, American dead have been coming back to Dover -- too many, too often. They are going to come this time, too, however many, however few, over however long a period, be it days or weeks or months or even something almost unimaginably beyond that.

And yet as of this moment the official word out of the Pentagon is there will be no "arrival ceremonies at Dover for remains." That report had been around for several days, but yesterday a Defense Department spokesman confirmed it: Dover Air Force Base will receive the dead from the gulf war as it has received American dead on so many other occasions, but no on-site honors are scheduled, no media coverage "expected." Those things will take place, say military officials, at the local level, which is to say at all those other American-sounding places that yielded up the country's boy-men in the first instance: Bartstown and Brattleboro and Bessemer and 10,000 others in between.

Dover, America's port of coffin entry. Dover, a five-letter place word that in the national gazeteer and consciousness has come to stand for war's most grievous cost.

This time apparently it will be different. And the difference is we won't be experiencing it on a patch of color glowing in our living rooms.

Everything about the place is different, and yet in another sense everything about it seems no different from any other American military installation: those rows and rows of drab, low-slung government housing; those garish strips out beyond the gates crammed with their 7-Elevens and liquor stores and waterbed emporiums. In this case the strip is U.S. 113. It's Dover's little Vegas.

The Blue Hen Mall is just up the road. That's where the real strip begins. At noon yesterday, three off-duty servicemen were plugging quarters into video war games in an outlet called the Fun Palace. The machines being pounded and tilted were called Cyclone and Operation Thunderbolt. Their operators had smooth, boyish, almost unblinking faces.

The officers' club at Dover offers a "beef eater's buffet" every Tuesday night, a tableside cookery every Friday.

At the base Family Support Center, the client load has increased 40 percent. People talk about "critical incident stress debriefing."

This sign out front of a video store on the main drag: Relive Our Civil War for a Week.

All this week, no less than the rest of America, no less than the rest of the world, both Dover the town (53,000 people) and Dover the base (4,000 square acres; 8,500 people, civilians and service) were fixed on events thousands of miles from here. The base itself had been put on "Threatcon Bravo," which is to say a high-security alert. Though officials insisted the alert was not in response to any specific threat. Yes, it's true, you could see people playing golf at the base course. Yes, it's true, airmen in desert camouflage khaki (were they about to be shipped out?) threw footballs in front of the All Ranks Club and the Enlisted Open Mess. Yes, it's true, civilian construction workers showed their passes at the south gate and went in and parked their cars and then proceeded to do another day's plastering and roofing at the base's much-anticipated new Burger King.

The new Burger King is just a couple of football tosses from the Port Mortuary. You don't often see that building on TV, but it's another potent symbol, not least in the minds of everyone who lives here. It's off-limits to the public, most of all media, but this much can be said of it: Its staff of nine is able to process up to 100 bodies a day, and in crisis periods triple that. In its two decades of life, somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 dead have been brought through the Port Mortuary, one of the largest of its kind in the world. "All I can tell you is that Dover Air Force Base is prepared for any eventuality," the base's public affairs director, Capt. Chris Geisel, said yesterday.

The civilian who directs the mortuary is a U.S. government mortician named Charles Carson. This week Carson has decided not to speak to the press. About 10 days ago he told a reporter, "I'd be lying if I said I didn't get depressed." He has prepared 30,000 bodies for burial in a 40-year career. According to Geisel, "Whenever Mr. Carson gets depressed, he gets in his car and drives around the base. He'll go to the chapel. He'll go to the BX."

The BX is the base exchange. It too is just over from the mortuary. In it you can buy anything from flashlights to peanut butter.

Yesterday morning two soldiers placed a ladder against an outside wall of the mortuary. They were about to fix something or other. Men were blacktopping inside the mortuary compound. The high, olive-colored fence had recently been installed -- although the need for this security had been identified even before the onset of Operation Desert Shield in August. The outside floodlights, which can bathe the place all night long like a football stadium, were turned off.

A man is talking. He is a night clerk. He is out of the military now, but everything about him says "military" nonetheless: the angular jaw, the short-cropped hair, the semi-fatalistic speech. His name is Paul E. Roy, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Paul E. Roy, and last night, as the night before, as the night before that, he didn't sleep well. He didn't sleep well because his son-in-law is an Air Force mechanic in Dhahran.

And he says, "My daughter is taking it hard. Her name is Laura. Can't sleep neither. Can't eat neither. I tried to prepare her for this. You can't."

And then, "It's the young that always bears the brunt of our wars. Just like me -- I was 22 when I went to Vietnam the first time." He is listening to bulletins from CNN reporters on the TV on his lobby desk, and it is as if the anxiety were measurable by size or weight. "Just yesterday we received postcards from him," he says. "He mailed them several weeks ago. He was in Egypt."

The night clerk himself was with the 47th Combat Support Group in Vietnam. Did two tours. Worked air rescue. Got called up from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. He got out of Southeast Asia alive and eventually got to Dover, where he served as flight engineer on the C-5 Galaxy, a cargo plane that is now ferrying weapons and food and tanks to the allies in the Persian Gulf. The C-5, Air Force statisticians like to say, is big enough to hold 25 million Ping-Pong balls. It's the length of a football field. It extends six stories into the air at the top of its T-tail. Thirty-eight C-5s are based at Dover, charged with supplying and resupplying the war in the gulf.

At Thanksgiving 1978, Paul Roy was at Dover flying the C-5 when the world heard about the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana.

"I didn't get involved in it. I think the C-141s were the ones bringing them in that time. I just stayed away from it. I couldn't understand it. I tried not to even read about it really. I still can't understand it. Dover doesn't want to remember that."

This past Dec. 1, the Dover paper, the State News, ran a story across the top of Page 1 with these two headlines: "Area Mortuaries Brace for Bodies. Base Expects Overflow if War Erupts." It caused a furor. An entire column of readers' "Sound Off" responses were printed a week later: "I think that was an awful thing you put in ... I think it was appalling to open the paper and see ... We are not at war as of yet and you are already counting our dead." The anger seemed so unprecedented that the paper's managing editor wrote a kind of defense cum apology that talked of "burying a story ... that might make this newspaper guilty of pretending that what we don't know won't hurt us."

"You see, people just don't want to be reminded of it," says Roy. "It's not that we're hiding from it. We just don't feel Dover needs that kind of article. We know all the way what that mortuary building stands for over there across the road. We know why it's there. I personally considered an article like that distasteful."

One of Paul Roy's fellow clerks comes in. Her name is Joanie Perkins. She has heard the last of this. Like everyone else in this county, it seems, she has her own connection to a mortuary and a base. "Jonestown was the one. Dover has seen some bizarre things. People on the outside don't know. Our guys were devastated."

A few minutes later, on the phone, Paul Roy says this: "Thank God we're not pussyfooting around like we did in Vietnam. I'm surprised they haven't shipped you out yet. Tomorrow morning? God bless you, boy. Yeah, amen to that."

At lunchtime Thursday, three Dover servicemen -- a captain and two sergeants -- stood in raw weather on the blacktop of an American Legion post. Their names were John Giamello and Mark Olanoff and Walter Born. Each was glad to say exactly where he was and what he was doing when the shooting started the night before.

"I was at a bowling alley," said Sgt. Olanoff. "We're all bowlers. I got a call from my girlfriend. I yelled out to Barney, he runs the place, 'Barney, the war's on!' Barney put the television over every guy's lane, superimposed it on the scoring screen. You didn't hear a ball."

"I was at my son's wrestling match," said Capt. Giamello. "I heard an elderly lady say, 'It started.' I said, 'Say that again?' I went down and talked to my son. His match hadn't started. He's undefeated. I said, 'John, it started. Pin him, pin him bad.' Well, he killed him. He pinned him in 30 seconds."

"Hell, mine's pretty boring," said, Sgt. Born. "I was just lying there on the couch. And then it happened."

Yesterday, from Public Affairs at the Pentagon, Maj. Mike Doble speaking, a nice-sounding guy clearly uncomfortable at being asked to depart from an official and terse stated word about no arrival ceremonies:

"Well, I could guess as to the official reasons. This is just Mike Doble talking, you understand. I think the idea is not to go through a ceremony every time the remains come in. It's just too much. It's too protracted. ... It's impossible to do a service for everyone. No one knows what's going to happen, but this may be a long war. Those Marines who died in Beirut? Okay, that was one event. Those sailors on the Stark. One event. The bodies came back in a bunch. This {war}, unfortunately, may go on much longer than we think. It just doesn't seem possible to do it every time at Dover."

And what of a public outcry that in effect might be saying this: So these people gave their lives and now it's as if they're being sneaked back into the country?

Maj. Doble: "That isn't the case at all, of course. There will be full honors at the individual's home. The individual services will work intimately with the families. {But} we've discussed the public outcry issue. Let me assure you, we're not deaf to it."

When the bodies came back to Dover from Vietnam, there were no arrival ceremonies, not in most cases.