ANNAPOLIS, JULY 29 -- Maryland's governor and comptroller ordered state bureaucrats today to find a way -- by next week -- to help American firms undercut Japanese prices, a mission that has stumped the federal government for years.

The two men blasted officials of the state Port Administration for their plan to buy six cranes from a Japanese firm, even though the price offered by the only American bidder was $7 million higher.

"I understand this low bid stuff, but the American, he's got to get a break too," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said at a Board of Public Works meeting where the proposed crane contract was reviewed. "America is always last. I'm tired of it."

Schaefer refused to approve the proposed $25 million contract and ordered port officials to come back to the board next week "with a full analysis on why the American firms can't compete and what we can do to help them out."

The governor was impatient with port official Robert Nelson's explanation that Japanese companies have a competitive edge because labor costs in Asia are far lower. "That's the same old hymn I've been hearing for six months, and I don't like the music," he said.

State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein was even more adamant. "I'm damn sick and tired of sending our economic dollar to Japan," he said. "They're going to come here and take this country over in an economic war."

Marvin Bond, a spokesman for Goldstein, said later that the comptroller had long resisted allowing the state to buy Japanese goods. "I know that's an issue close to Louie because he investigated war crimes in the Pacific for Gen. MacArthur."

At issue is the Port Administration's planned purchase of six state-of-the-art container cranes for the Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore. Nissho Iwai American Corp., a Japanese firm with offices in New York, submitted a bid to supply the cranes for $25.1 million. That bid was lower than the three others the Port Administration received, two of which were also from foreign firms.

The only American bidder was PACECO Inc. of Gulfport, Miss., which submitted a bid for $32 million, the highest one received. The state can accept only the lowest bid.

Nelson told the board that the low-bidding firm would use Korean steel and labor.

Both Goldstein and Schaefer said they believe foreign nations have been uncooperative and ungrateful to the United States, with Schaefer citing Kuwait's refusal to berth U.S. minesweeping helicopters that are protecting their oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The Japanese, said Goldstein, "ain't giving us a damn thing. We can't even go over there and do business 90 percent of the time."

Ironically, several months ago the Schaefer administration turned to Japanese banks for help in resolving the lingering savings and loan crisis. The banks were willing to provide letters of credit to back hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds, but state had to abandon the plan because it would have jeopardized its AAA bond rating.

Goldstein suggested that, as an alternative to buying Japanese, the state could purchase the cheaper foreign steel and have American firms assemble the cranes. "It can be done if you get the right people together," he said.

Goldstein also criticized the idea of paying several Japanese executives who he said would come to Baltimore to oversee the project $500 a day so they can live the high life and "eat steak." The salaries are included in the bid.