They fell out of the sky at 500 miles an hour, six jets clustered as tight as spades on a card. The people on the field by the river gasped at first as if stunned between pleasure and fright, until the markings of the U.S. Navy became clear, and smiles broke out, and cheering welled up in the wash of engine-scream.

"Watch this," one proud midshipman said to his gaping date as a blue-gold Skyhawk flipped upside down a hundred feet above the Severn River. "That is really cool."

Many in the crowd of several thousand, who thronged Dewey Field at the U.S. Naval Academy to view the aerial virtuosity of the Blue Angels, took the same delight in the symbols of American military prowess and might.

Their applause -- and the spirit of patriotism that has invigorated much of the weeklong festival here in honor of the 130th graduation at Annapolis today -- has been a special tonic for the 950 seniors, affording them newfound prestige as defenders of their nation in a time of international uncertainty.

"My friends don't think I'm God, but I'm in an honorary position," said one senior from Los Angeles as he lounged on a bench in front of Dahlgren Hall. "I remember being embarrassed by my uniform as a junior ROTC."

Now it seems, the climate of patriotic zeal has even conferred new status upon a creture as lowly as the "plebe," academy jargon for a first-year midshipman.

"My friends always ask me to bring back Annapolis T-shirts," said Bob Gross, a 20-year-old plebe from Bloomfield, N.J. "They feel proud to know I go here."

But it is more than a rejuvenated sense of pride that radiates from the academy this week. Many midshpmen have girded themselves for war -- inasmuch as that can be done in a holiday atmosphere where kids straddle old torpedoes, mids swill beer under cannons and couples plan their future life beside monuments of valorous dead.

"If war breaks out, I'll go," said senior Richard MacInness, who may be typical of many of his classmates in his mood of realism, apprehension and resignation to "whatever happens."

"It's like walking down a dark hallway to get to the light at the end," he says to explain that he would fight for the "freedoms" of the United States. "No ones likes doing it, but it's worth it."

MacInness is one of 149 men and 7 women headed into the Marines.

"Around here," he said, "everyone says you go Marines and I'll see you in Iran. And that they're now issuing sand-colored uniforms."

Seniors were most sharply aware of the prospects of war when the American hostages were first seized in Tehran, and since that time, like most everyone else, they have grown somewhat inured. But "the general attitude is that if you have to go you have to go," said one senior. "Nobody wants to go, but if the time comes, it comes."

Despite the fact that Armored Warfare, Squad Leader, Panzer Blitz, and Crescendo of Doom are some of the most popular board games for sale in downtown Annapolis, few midshipmen put up with four years of academy life simply because they want to go to war.

The credentials of their education, job security, and free training that can be cashed in for civilian jobs probably induce more midshipmen than the desire to do battle.

"I would have fought in Vietnam because I think people should make a commitment," said Ferg Diener, a softspoken 22-year-old senior from Baltimore who grew up with nine brothers and sisters. "Being killed is something that doens't bother me. My whole foundation is if you have a job to do, you do it."

There is also a deep current of nostalgia tugging at these 950 men and women who are about to take leave of this place where traditions are as deeply rooted as the century-old oaks. The seniors already look forward to the day they meet up with old classmates in an distant officer's club.

"There was a time when I was a plebe and I couldn't sit on the grass," mused 23-year-old Charlie Thompson of Lexington Park, Md. The expression on his face was a serene as the lawns surrounding the shaded bench where he sat with his mother and sisters. "I have so much free time I don't know what to do. I can see beyond this -- if there's a war somebody has to do it -- but it's so peaceful right now."