As the V-formation of four F15 fighter jets flew low over Washington Cathedral yesterday, one plane peeled off and headed skyward in the "Missing Man" formation the Air Force uses to commemorate fliers who went into combat and never returned.

It was the final symbolic act in an hour filled with symbols marking the first National Recognition Day for the prisoners of war and the soldiers missing in action during the nation's last four wars.

Earlier, inside the cathedral, more than 400 people sat somberly, listening to the remarks of Veterans Administrator Max Cleland and Rear Adm. William Lawrence and watching as the Joint Armed Services Color Guard, shoes cracking sharply on the flagstone, carried the service flags to and fro.

Officially, the purpose was to commemorate the 142,227 American prisoners and the 92,761 soldiers who disappeared in combat since the beginning of World War I. But in fact the memories of the Vietnam conflict clearly predominated.

The Air Force master sergeant who led the pledge of allegiance, the Air Force chaplain who gave the invocation, and Adm. Lawrence, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, were among the 766 American soldiers taken prisoner in Vietnam.

Near the end of the program, a statement of belief called "No Greater Love" was recited by 16-year-old Heather Schott and her brother, Christopher, 14. Their father, Air Force Lt. Col. Richard S. Schott, was reported missing in action in Vietnam in 1972. He never was found, and now is presumed dead.

"No suffering exceeds and no pain exceeds that of a family for whom the war is not over," Cleland said in his earlier remarks "...These experiences drive home to us our mortality and our humanity and they also drive home to us the beauty of the life we have left."

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, attended yesterday's low-key ceremony, but it was not a magnet for political dignitaries.

In a way, the military men and military families there treated the occasion as a quieter Memorial Day for soldiers who need a different sort of memorial. CAPTION: Picture 1, Colors are presented in Cathedral,; Picture 2, VA Administrator Max Cleland pauses for a moment of prayer. Photos by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post