WHEN PHILIPPINE President Ferdinand E. Marcos visited Washington in September 1982, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger presented him with a case displaying U.S. medals supposedly awarded to him in World War II, and President Reagan complimented him at a special ceremony for fighting "valiantly" on the U.S. side against Japan.

A Philippine government publicity brochure describes Marcos as "his country's most decorated soldier," with more awards (32) than the 27 credited to American World War II hero Audie Murphy. Allegedly included in these decorations are two U.S. Silver Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross.

However, an 18-month effort to verify Marcos' claims to high American decorations raises serious doubts about whether he actually was awarded them. This effort included a search of U.S. military archives, a detailed examination of official military histories, personal memoirs and portions of Marcos' personal file at the U.S. military records center in St. Louis, and conversations with Philippine and American survivors of the war.

Nor could any independent, outside corroboration be found to buttress a claim made in Philippine government brochures that he was recommended for the U.S. Medal of Honor because of his bravery on Bataan, as a document in his U.S. military file suggests.

During the search, numerous verbal and written inquiries were made to the Philippine Embassy here requesting supporting documentation for the president's medals. Among the items sought was a paper identified as the operational report of Marcos' commander in Bataan. It is referred to in a book by a Philippine military historian. The paper, which the book said describes Marcos' deeds leading to the recommendation for the Medal of Honor, was not made available.

The embassy did supply a copy of what it said was the recommendation for the second Silver Star, signed by a Philippine officer, and 1963 documents dealing with his award of the Philippine equivalent of the Silver Star for the same exploit. However, the material provided did not confirm that he ever actually was awarded this medal.

When initially asked in 1982 about the Weinberger presentation, a Pentagon spokesman cited Marcos' personal military file in St. Louis. Commenting last week on the matter, a senior Pentagon official said: "The Defense Department will stick by whatever was said (earlier). . .I am sure when the secretary (Weinberger) made the award he was acting in good faith."

The issue of the medals is more than a matter of passing historical interest. Marcos' political opponents say that his record as a well-decorated war hero fighting shoulder-to- shoulder with the United States has given him an image in this country that encourages Americans to overlook his authoritarian style of government and abuses of human rights.

The man and his military reputation are inseparable. His birthplace in Ilocos Norte province has been made into a shrine which includes a display of his U.S. and Philippine decorations.

The sensitivity of the matter is clear from the fact that Philippine authorities in December 1982 shut down a Manila weekly newspaper, We Forum, which earlier had carried a series of articles questioning the president's military record.

Controversy about the medals was first brought to the attention of The Washington Post in 1982 by Philippine opponents of Marcos, including the author of the We Forum articles. These sources brought with them two individuals who had served with Marcos in northern Luzon, including his former commanding officer, Romulo Manriquez. These men said they were not aware of Marcos performing the exploit for which he is said to have earned one of the Silver Stars.

When Marcos was questioned about their allegations at a luncheon with Post editors and reporters in September 1982, he responded that he had been given a Silver Star by Col. Russel Volckmann, who commanded U.S. and Filipino guerrillas in northern Luzon toward the end of the war. (Volckmann died in the spring of 1982, before opponents of Marcos approached The Post.)

The day after the luncheon, Manriquez was visited at his home in Southeast Washington by members of Marcos' entourage and presented with two gold-plated Cartier watches -- one for Manriquez and one for his wife. They came away with a signed Manriquez statement that the president of the Philippines deserved his medals.

Philippine officials said later that the gifts were given because Marcos wanted to show gratitude to an old war comrade. However, Manriquez later told the Post that he stood by his position that Marcos had not performed the deed for which he received the Silver Star. Subsequently, embassy officials said that they took back the gifts on grounds that the reason for giving them might be misinterpreted.

There is no question that Marcos served in combat on the U.S. side at the beginning of World War II, or that he has received many Philippine decorations for wartime actions. In 1940, soon after graduating from law school, he was called to active duty with the Philippine army. At that time, the Philippines was still an American colony and the army was under U.S. command. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941, Lt. Marcos was serving in the 21st Philippine Division, which was part of the force driven back onto the Bataan Peninsula.

There, division combat units were assigned to reinforce the U.S. II Corps main defensive position, known as the Abucay Line. After the surrender of the forces on Bataan in April, and the ensuing "Death March," most Philippine soldiers were released under the terms of a Japanese amnesty. Subsequently, Marcos organized Ang Manga Maharlika (Tagalog for The Nobles), which the Philippine government describes as a guerilla group. In December 1944, he joined Col. Volckmann's guerrillas in northern Luzon.

Two of his U.S. medals purportedly were earned during the Bataan campaign.

Marcos claims to have earned a Silver Star for dispersing infiltrators at Guitol, far behind U.S. lines, on Jan. 16. Two days later, some eight miles to the west, he allegedly carried out the exploit on the slopes of Mt. Natib that earned him the DSC.

Finally, according to the official Philippine version, Marcos' Philippine commander recommended him for the Medal of Honor for his heroism in organizing a group of 100 stragglers that blocked a Japanese offensive, enabling U.S. forces to carry out a withdrawal to a new defense line. This is said to have occurred from Jan. 22 through Jan. 26.

A certain amount of confusion concerning medals and decorations is understandable, given the chaos surrounding the Japanese takeover of the Philippines and the stunning American defeat. Many Philippine soldiers who received awards lost the general orders that conveyed them. After the war many sought to obtain the recognition that was rightfully theirs.

Marcos, however, was not just another anonymous young Filipino officer during the period in question. When he entered the army he already was well known because of a well publicized trial that ended in his conviction for killing a political opponent of his father, who had run for National Assembly. The conviction later was overturned. While going through the appeal, he received additional notoriety by scoring first on the national bar examination.

A photograph of Marcos taken at the end of the war shows him wearing a U.S. DSC and one Silver Star (as well as a Purple Heart). Marcos' claim to these medals rests heavily on a letter to him dated July 6, 1946, from Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces Pacific. It said: "Based on your statements and the affidavits of witnesses, the validity of your claim for the award (of the DSC and the first of the two Silver Stars) is acknowledged."

This letter apparently refers to affidavits of a wartime comrade of Marcos, Maj. Aurelio L. Laucero, who shows up in U.S. military records as the sole corroborator of Marcos' claims. However, other documents which omit Marcos' name from lists of awards recipients.

For example, his name does not appear on either of two official lists of some 120 Americans and Filipinos who were awarded the DSC during the Bataan campaign. The lists were transmitted by radio to the War Department in Washington by Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright on April 11 and 12, 1942, shortly before Wainwright's surrender on the island of Corregidor off the southern tip of Bataan.

Nor does Marcos' name appear on the "List of Recipients of Awards and Decorations Issued Between Dec. 7, 1941 through June 30, 1945," compiled by the "machine records unit" of MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo soon after the war's end.

Still another question involves a second Distinguished Service Cross that Marcos laid claim to in a U.S. Army document he signed in 1946. He gave no details about the circumstances under which he allegedly earned this decoration and did not indicate what headquarters awarded it. Not even the Philippine government makes reference to such an award today. In response to an inquiry by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), the U.S. Army's congressional liaison office said that it could find no confirmation that Marcos was ever given this medal.

The U. S. Army's military awards branch provided the affidavits from Marcos' files in St. Louis in which Lucero supports Marcos' claims to the award of a DSC and a Silver Star during the Bataan campaign. Both are dated Feb. 1, 1946.

Lucero served with Marcos in the Philippine Army's 21st Division and later was a member of Ang Manga Maharlika. Lucero's statments also provide the basis for the assertion that President Marcos was recommended for the Medal of Honor.

In his affidavit regarding the Distinguished Service Cross, Lucero describes how Lt. Marcos, around Jan. 18, 1942, led a patrol that located and destroyed several Japanese artillery pieces that had been raising havoc with the 21st Division, then bivouacked in reserve.

Lucero's affidavit states that in recognition of this accomplishment, "sometime in the later part of March 1942, Maj. Ferdinand E. Marcos was awarded in a Special Orders from the hq, USFIP (U.S. Forces in the Philippines), Fort Mills, Corregidor, the Distinguished Service Cross. . . ."

Lucero, now 80 and living in the Manila suburb of Quezon City, told me in a recent telephone interview that he could not remember events from that time because of his age.

However, U.S. records and a history of the 21st Division do not seem to bear out Lucero's statement.

The Department of the Army's Adjutant General's office informed me that a search of USFIP special and general orders has found nothing conveying an award to Marcos.

At the Institute of Military History at Carlisle, Pa., is a 44-page typewritten manuscript entitled, "History of the 21st Division." It is among several accounts by participants in the Philippine campaign supplied to Louis Morton, the author of the U.S. Army's official history, "The Fall of the Philippines." A penciled notation on its cover says: "From Gen. Capinpin, but not necessarily by him." Gen. Mateo Capinpin commanded the 21st Philippine division. Though unsigned, the narrative is told from the point of view of the division's commanding general.

Lt. Marcos of the division's G-2 (intelligence) section is mentioned frequently in this manuscript in connection with his patrols to gather information about the enemy. It tells of one incident in which Marcos transported a fellow wounded officer to the rear for medical attention.

However, while the history refers to some men of the 21st Division winning Silver Stars, there is no reference to Marcos winning either that medal or the DSC, and no mention that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. In fact, there is a lengthy passage in the manuscript complaining that personnel of the division did not receive sufficient recognitition for their deeds.

The history also has a section dealing with the military situation around Jan. 18 -- the time Marcos is said to have earned the DSC. "On or about the same time (the last date referred to is Jan. 18), mortar and artillery shelling hit the bivuoac camp, resulting in heavy casualties. . . . The G-2 officer, then Captain Ismael D. Lapus and then 3rd Lt. Ferdinand A. (sic) Marcos led successive patrols to locate the enemy artillery but continuously failed."

In his affidavit regarding the award of the Silver Star, Lucero states that Marcos was given that award "sometime in the latter part of Feb. 1942 for gallantry in action in Guitol, Balanga, Bataan . . . in Division General Orders."

According to Lucero's account, "(Marcos) with three men attacked and dislodged a greatly superior enemy force which had captured the outpost and machine gun emplacements of the 21st Division in Reserve. . . ." This action, Lucero says, took place "on or about Jan. 16, 1942."

Lucero's statement that this exploit took place on Jan. 16 also creates a problem of timing. The "History of the 21st Division" states that Lt. Marcos and a Capt. Lapus of the 21st Division's G-2 section served as guides for a regiment from another division when it was moved to the front. The official U.S. Army history, "The Fall of the Philippines," says that the regiment, the 31st Infantry, made the move on Jan. 16. The "History of the 21st Division," has nothing about Marcos earning a citation for valor about the same time he was guiding the 31st Regiment into the line.

Current Philippine government material strates that Marcos received the DSC and the Silver Star from MacArthur's command. However, the general orders of MacArthur's command do not contain any awards for Marcos.

The last U.S. medal Marcos is said to have been given is a second Silver Star. Material about Marcos supplied by the Philippine Embassy, including the original recommendation prepared by another Philippine officer, states that Marcos was awarded the decoration for single-handedly turning back a "column of enemy" that approached the command post of his regiment in northern Luzon on April 5, l945. At this time, the Japanese were retreating from U.S. forces in that direction.

However, the Department of the Army's congressional liaison office has informed Rep. Evans that there is no confirmation that this award was ever made.

In some other Philippine cases, verifying awards has not been as difficult. Consider the matter of Sgt. Ambrocio Lappay, another Filipino soldier who early in 1946 sought confirmation that he had been awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.

In the records of the War Department is a letter from Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces Pacific, dated July 6, 1946, confirming the award of the DSC to Lappay. Lappay's name is on the roster of "Recipients of Awards December 7, 1941 to June 20, 1945" compiled by the machine records division of the same headquarters as having received the DSC. It is also on the list of DSC winners transmitted to the War Department by Gen. Wainwright in April 1942. And the National Archives has a copy of the 1942 USAFFE general order awarding Lappay the DSC.

Marcos' contention that he was recommended for the Medal of Honor and that this was endorsed by Wainwright also raises questions.

The only document that I was able to find in U.S. military files corroborating the claim is a "reconstitution" of Capinpin's recommendation purportedly drawn up by Lucero in 1946. The original, allegedly written on April 3, 1942, and subsequently lost, was purportedly recreated as best Lucero could recall it.

As a member of Capinpin's headquarters staff, Lucero might well have known about such a recommendation. But what is puzzling about the Lucero document that I obtained from Marcos' military file in St. Louis is that both the rank and serial number used by Lucero are ones that he acquired after 1946, when the recreation of the recommendation supposedly was done. This document identifies hids.

The hism as a colonel, while other documents dated 1946 identify him either as a captain or a major. The serial number on the document is one he was given in the early 1950s.

By any definition, the action of Lt. Marcos in organizing a blocking force that enabled the hard-pressed U.S. II Corps to withdraw to new lines would have been one of the most significant exploits of the Bataan campaign.

Yet there is no reference to it in MacArthur's "Reminiscences," or in a score of books about MacArthur.

In the fall of 1982, two high Philippine officials sent messages to The Washington Post stating that MacArthur had pinned a lapel medal on Marcos during the latter's 1961 visit to the general's New York City apartment. Both officials stated that Mrs. MacArthur had been present at this event.

In the general's papers at Norfolk's MacArthur Museum is a carbon copy of an April 5, 1961, letter to Marcos. It reads:

"Dear Senator Marcos:

"Thank you so much for sending me the box of cigars. It was thoughtful, indeed, of you and I appreciate it. They are my favorite brand.

"I enjoyed so much our recent talk.

"With every good wish.

"Most Cordially,

"Douglas MacArthur."

I wrote the general's widow, Jean, and asked if she recalled her husband pinning a lapel medal on Marcos or otherwise taking note of his military record. She replied:

". . . I remember my General introducing him as Senator Marcos and mentioning that he was a guerrilla during the war. I do not remember an award being given. I had either left the room or the occasion did not impress itself upon my memory."

The "Fall of the Philippines" has no reference to any spontaneous blocking action that facilitated the withdrawal of II Corps. The daily operations reports for II Corps make no mention of any blocking action by a group of stragglers.

The Japanese brigade that directed the offensive along the Abucay Line prepared an after-action report of the campaign. Under the heading "Jan. 24" (which would have been midway through the five-day "blocking action") is this entry:

"As night fell, both front-line flank units again resumed their fierce attack. At 1930 hrs the right flank unit (on the U.S. left flank where Marcos' stragglers were supposedly making their stand) finally broke through the enemy positions on the front and, shouting their battle cries in the moonlight, pursued the retreating enemy. They evicted the enemy from every position, and their attack became an heroic night pursuit."

The late Col. Ray M. O'Day was the senior American adviser with the 21st Philippine Division. He later prepared a manuscript about the 21st's experiences. It was used as source material by the author of the "The Fall of the Philippines." Col. O'Day makes two brief references to Marcos in his 59-page typewritten account, but there is no mention of any medals for heroism.

Carlos P. Romulo, the current foreign minister of the Philippines, served on Corregidor as a press officer for both MacArthur and Wainwright. Wainwright also named him to a board that was to pass on all recommendations for decorations. Romulo, who fled Corregidor before its fall, published a book in 1942, "I Saw the Fall of the Philippines." In it he describes the operation of a radio station on Corregidor called "Voice of Freedom." Romulo writes, "On Corregidor and Bataan we had our heroes. We told their exploits over the Voice of Freedom."

He mentions eight American and Filipino fighting heroes. Marcos is not one of them.

Another member of the decorations board appointed by Wainwright was Col. John R. Vance, now living in retirement in Corte Madera, Calif. In September 1982, Col. Vance told me that the board's assignment was "to review all recommendations" and clear up the backlog. "We bent over backwards to give people awards that were deserved," he said.

I asked him whether he was aware of any endorsement by Wainwright of a Medal of Honor for Marcos. "I never heard of that," he answered. "We never saw anything about Marcos."