THROUGHOUT THE Soviet Union today there are men and women who owe their lives to American generosity. And all across America there are families that exist only because of the sacrifices of the Red Army. The debts date from World War II. Mutual obligations, they remain largely unacknowledged.

This year both countries will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their victories in Europe and the Pacific. The official observances will be ceremonious, stirring and, in most cases, separate. It has become inconvenient for officials in Moscow and Washington to recall the wartime alliance, just as it is difficult to commemorate the transformation of Germany and Japan from foes to friends.

But as we devise tactful ways to honor the postwar reconciliation, we should also look for means to refresh if not restore the atmosphere of U.S.-Soviet cooperation.

During the four years from Hitler's invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941, to Japan's surrender in 1945, American and Soviet troops saw little of each other and almost never engaged in combat together. The link-up at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945, joined armies that had maintained communications with one another only at the highest and often most-strained, political level. The individual, human contact that burst into joyful celebration there and in similar encounters in Czechoslovakia was the exception, not the rule, in the conduct of the alliance.

While I believe we should commemorate the meeting on the Elbe (and have joined Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) in making that recommendation to the president), many other activities led up to that moment and made it possible. Those all-but-forgotten endeavors deserve to be recalled and remembered as well.

It should not be impossible to ind survivors of the joint Soviet- American crew that sailed the cruiser U.S.S. Milwaukee from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Murmansk in the Spring of 1944. As the ship was formally handed over there, Americans stood the port watch for several, symbolic days while Soviet seamen took the starboard duty. To recreate that camaraderie, at least briefly, we need only take our memories out of mothballs.

In that same spirit, the military record keepers could perhaps track down the men and women who served together in building and operating three airfields at Poltava in the Ukraine. It was there, on June 2, 1944, that 73 Flying Fortresses landed after a flight from Italy and a highly successful bombing run on the enemy airfield at Debrecen in Hungary. Poltava, the battlefield where Peter the Great destroyed the Swedish Army in June 1709, was the one site in the U.S.S.R. where Soviets and Americans conducted joint combat operations: 18 shuttle-bombing missions that made history at the time but have become footnotes since.

Somewhere, though, one American airman who flew on that first run may still recall his reaction when he landed: "Russia! Nobody ever told us it was pretty." And among his hosts then there may still live some who remember the four months of Operation Frantic when the bases were built from scratch by Americans and Soviets who competed in trying to learn each other's language and who delighted in passing off hair-curling obscenities in English or Russian as formal or endearing phrases suitable for social use.

There surely still are merchant seamen in the United States who sailed some of the 2,660 ships (77 were lost) on the Murmansk run, bringing over 15 million tons of supplies to the Soviet Union. Even if some Soviets joked wryly about our cans of Spam being the "Second Front," others christened American butter "Roosevelt's Smile," and statistics show that U.S. provisions were enough to provide the 12 million members of the Red Army with a half a pound of food a day throughout the war.

For some civilians the food and clothing that came from private, rather than Lend-Lease aid, was truly life-giving. Leo Gruliow, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Moscow in the 1970s, says he was warmly welcomed whenever he identified himself as a former official of the Russian War Relief.

"You saved my life", his secretary-translator told him, recalling the American overcoat he had received in an orphanage in mid-war and had worn from the time it reached to his ankles until it no longer covered his knees.

As a reporter, Gruliow also covered the story of the American Red Cross official who repatriated a group of 800-900 orphans who had been evacuated early in the war from Leningrad to the Far East. In a journey that lasted almost a year, he transported them by sea across the Pacific, by rail across America and by boat home again after the war was over.

"Whatever the silences in the official press, whatever the propaganda and the level of hostility," Gruliow believes, "the Russian people don't forget. They know all about what happened."

Most Americans, however, do not know or have forgotten. And official Soviets have -- largely by conscious omission -- tried to erase the folk memory of the wartime collabortion. Yet there are moments of unpublicized gratitude.

Traveling last August on a Dnieper River excursion steamer from Kiev to Odessa, Ray Ellis, a former Lend-Lease official in the U.S.S.R., was surprised when the captain presented him with a bowl. He was told it was an award for his wartime service, which had included 10 months in Novosibirsk helping Soviets build a radio-tube factory so that their units could establish and maintain communication with American forces as the two advanced toward each other across Europe.

"There's a smoldering fire there. If we could just blow on it, it would burst out again," says the former Raytheon vice president.

This anniversary year is the time to try in small, human ways to revive that warmth by reuniting those who once kindled it. There should be reunions -- not just on the Elbe, but in Murmansk and Poltava and in the American factory towns where Soviets trained to use the planes, trucks and Jeeps, the specially built locomotives and freight cars that were so vital to eventual victory.

In both the United States and the Soviet Union, an effort should be made to assemble and print first- person recollections of this extraordinary time of cooperation. And there should be, as well, some gathering of scholars and combatants from the victors and the vanquished. In a true telling of our common history of war we may find some helpful guidance toward a common future of peace.

More than history is at issue. Our future also depends to a degree on our ability to be candid about the past. In remembering that we once fought side by side, Americans and Soviets could build new barriers against fighting face to face.