Retired Army Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, 83, one of the nation's most powerful men during three decades as director of the Selective Service System, died yesterday in his sleep at a motel in Angola, Ind.

A trustee of his alma mater, Tri-State College in Angola, he had gone there to attend a board meeting yesterday afternoon. He also was to have attended graduation exercises today at the university, where a memorial to him is being created.

Gen. Hershey had undergone surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain at Walter Reed Hospital on Feb. 24.

He remained hospitalized until April, 20. He then was allowed to return to his home in Bethesda, but went back to Walter Reed as an outpatient.

When his wife of 59 years, Ellen Hershey, died of a heart attack on April 1, Gen. Hershey got permission from hospital authorities to attend her burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Despite his incapacities, he insisted on walking from the chapel to the graveside.

Friends said yesterday that her death contributed greatly to his rapidly worsening health. He was accompanied on the trip to Angola by a son, retired Marine Corps Col. Gilbert Hershey.

A controversial figure, who had served under six Presidents and during three wars as well as in peacetime, Gen. Hershey had overseen the drafting of millions of Americans.

In the early part of his career as head of the draft system. Gen. Hershey met with little opposition. Then, during World War II, patriotism, which meant serving the country, was the key word.

He was a celebrity who could ask for and receive radio time almost anytime for nationwide broadcasts on the draft to a country at war.

But in the 1960s, Gen. Hershey ran the full gamut of criticism. He became on open target for war dissenters said and those opposed to sending U.S. troops to Vietnam. He seemed almost immune to the barbs.

"I had some temper," he once said, "but as you grow older it doesn't bother you much because it tires you out to get mad."

Although there were calls for his ouster for years before he finally was eased out of his position, he clung tenaciously to the job.

Finally, in October, 1969, President Nixon announced that Gen. Hershey would step down as Selective Service chief on the following Feb. 16.

He was reassigned as an adviser to the President on manpower mobilization, a position he held until 1973, when he retired from the Army.

In an interview in 1970, shortly after he left the Selective Service, he noted:

"It was inevitable. And there's always a question whether you wait the way I did too long. But I would feel I was running away.

"I haven't allowed myself to regret it. I enjoyed the damn turmoil I went through over there. But I don't think I ever wake up at night and miss it."

Before he became involved in Selective Service planning and administration. Gen. Hershey's military career had been comparatively uneventful.

Born on a farm in Steuben County, Ind., he graduated from high school, briefly attended Tri-State College and became a country school teacher. He later earned several degrees at Tri-State and was a graduate student at the University of Indiana when this country entered World War I.

Gen. Hershey had joined the Indiana National Guard at age 18, and served with it on the Mexican border.

He was sent to France in World War I but saw no combat.After the war in 1920, he joined the regular Army and saw duty in Texas, where he lost his right eye in a polo accident, and in Kansas and Hawaii.

In 1936, he was assigned as secretary to a Joint Army-Navy Committee set up to determine how a Selective Service System might be established in case the United States again entered a war. Its recommendations were the basis for the draft law passed in 1940.

Gen. Hershey was named executive of the new Selective Service System that year and became its director in July 1941. By that time, he had begun to view the agency as an instrument to control all the manpower in the United States.

He considered total reliance on the draft as essential not only for military purposes. He left his agency should decided where the individual could best serve a nation in total war.

But he frequently changed his views. A short while later, he declared the armed forces no longer could share available young men with essential war industries.

Even before the war ended, Gen. Hershey was calling for a postwar system of universal military training. However, with the war's end, the draft system was junked.

President Truman then appointed him chief of the Office of Selective Service Records. When the draft was revived in 1948, Gen. Hershey again became director of the Selective Service System.

Known as a tough, direct, honest and combative man," he continued to run with boundless energy a system that included thousands of local draft boards and appeals boards.

Gen. Hershey favored decentralization of operations to the extent that the draft boards were in the best position to determine who should be required to hear arms. On the other hand, he often issued general instructions to all boards.

His sharp tongue and high-handed ways sometimes caused him difficulties. For example, during the Korean conflict, he angered scientists by refusing draft referrals for young scientists.

Gen. Hershey's greatest problems, came in the 1960s during protests against the Vietnam war. Attacks on him reached their high point in 1967 when he directed draft boards to induct immediately antiwar protesters.

That directive was struck down two years later by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, protesters had camped at the doors of Selective Service System offices, speeches by Gen. Hershey had been disrupted on college campuses and elsewhere and demands were being made for his removal.

He remained undaunted. At one point, he even marched in a peace rally in Washington. At times, he seemed to sympathize with angry youths opposing the Vietnam war and the draft, although, he was unable to offer an easy solution.

"The youth always have the responsibility of defending the country," he said. "How can they defend it if they don't believe in it (the country's participation in the war)?"

But at other times, he lashed out at protesters and draft-card burners, claiming they were publicity seekers who should be prosecuted and/or inducted.

Gen. Hershey had opposed a shift to a lottery draft system in the 1960s, but later changed his stance. He also had opposed the transition to all-volunteer armed forces.

Although he had never been in actual combat, he received the Distinguished Service Medal from President Truman in 1946. He also held the Navy Distinguished Service Medal and American Legion Distinguished Service Medal.

In addition to Col. Hershey, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., he is survived by another son, George Hershey, of Bremerton, Wash.; two daughters, Kathryn H. Layne, of Washington, and Ellen Margaret Barth, of Kaneohe, Hawaii; 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. He will be buried in Arlington Cemetery.