FIFTY YEARS ago last Monday -- on Aug. 12, 1941 -- House Speaker Sam Rayburn saved the "draft" from legislative defeat and kept the U.S. Army intact to fight a war that was only four months away.

The margin of victory was a single vote, and the battle could have been lost as easily as won except for Rayburn's personality, leadership, mastery of parliamentary procedure and -- when push came to shove -- lightning-fast gavel.

If Rayburn had failed, the Army stood to lose about two-thirds of its strength and three-fourths of the officer corps. At issue was whether to extend the 12-month service obligation of more than 600,000 draftees already in the Army and thousands of others being inducted every day, and the active-duty term of several hundred thousand National Guardsmen and reservists who had been called up for one year. Without an extension, the obligations of both the draftees and the Guardsmen and reservists would begin expiring in the fall.

The United States had adopted its first peace time draft during the previous summer after weeks of heated and acrimonious debates in both congressional chambers. In the House, tempers became so frayed that two Democratic members got into a fist fight on the floor until both were ejected with bloody noses and bruised egos.

Congress finally passed the Selective Training and Service Act, authorizing the Army to induct up to 900,000 draftees annually. President Roosevelt signed it into law on Sept. 16, 1940. One month later -- on "R" Day -- some 16 1/2 million men between the ages of 21 and 36 registered for the draft. The first lottery drawing was held Oct. 29, and the dreaded "Greeting" from local draft boards was in the mail shortly thereafter.

Although the legislation limited the draftees' terms of service to 12 months, it provided that the president could extend the period indefinitely if Congress "declared that the national interest is imperiled." On July 21, 1941, with the prospect of war increasing, Roosevelt acted. In a special message to Capitol Hill, he asked Congress to declare a "national emergency" that would allow the Army to extend the service of draftees, Guardsmen and reservists for whatever period the legislators deemed appropriate.

Despite the measure's unpopularity and strong lobbying by isolationist forces, the Senate approved a joint resolution on Aug. 7 "declaring the existence of a national emergency" and authorizing the president to extend the service of most Army personnel by 18 months. The vote was 45-30.

In the House, it was a different story. The Republican leadership viewed opposition to draft extension as a political opportunity just too good to ignore. Others had their own reasons for opposing the measure.

As summarized by Time magazine, they included 17 Irish congressmen whose votes were based on anti-British sentiments; Tammany Hall Democrats upset that the administration was supporting nonpartisan New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for re-election; a large group of Democrats who believed draft extension violated the commitment given to those already in service; straight-out pacifists who opposed all defense bills; and a "big group in both parties who vote blindly against anything Franklin Roosevelt is for."

In an effort to "depoliticize"' the issue as much as possible, Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson designated Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall as the administration's point man on the bill. Marshall worked tirelessly but found converts difficult to come by despite his tremendous prestige on Capitol Hill.

"You put the case very well," one Republican congressman told him, "but I will be damned if I am going along with Mr. Roosevelt."

The vote was set for Monday, Aug. 11 but Rayburn put it off for one day out of respect for a Republican member who had died over the weekend. With the president out of town -- meeting secretly in Newfoundland with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to frame the "Atlantic Charter" -- Rayburn spent the additional day roaming the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to win over recalcitrant Democrats and wavering Republicans. His lobbying style was like the man himself -- honest, direct and intensely personal without a hint of intimidation.

"I wish you would stand by me because it means a lot to me," he would say. Mr. Sam, up close and personal, was a hard man to refuse.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Aug. 12, the House began debating the joint resolution already passed by the Senate. A largely anti-draft crowd looked on sullenly from the packed visitor gallery. Included among the spectators were many servicemen in uniform and "delegations of mothers clutching little American flags."

The debate dragged on for 10 hours, through lunch and dinner. Amendments designed to weaken the bill were defeated with the help, ironically, of isolationists who wanted an "all or nothing" vote on the joint resolution. Finally, at 8:05 p.m., the reading clerk began calling the roll. Then, as required, the clerk went back through the list, repeating the names of members who had not answered the first roll call.

After 45 minutes of "grinding suspense," the vote was completed -- 204 to 201 in favor of the draft extension. But before it could be announced, New York Democrat Andrew Sommers was on his feet demanding recognition. Rayburn obliged and quickly regretted the move: Sommers changed his vote from aye to nay, opening the door for futher defections.

To forestall this, Rayburn turned from other Democrats who were calling for the floor and recognized Missouri Republican Dewey Short, a leader of the anti-draft forces and thus a known quantity. Short requested a recapitulation but committed a fatal error -- by not insisting that the recount precede announcement of the original vote.

Sensing his opportunity, Rayburn quickly read the results: "On this roll call, 203 members have voted aye, 202 members nay, and the bill is passed."

In so doing, Rayburn had frozen the vote. Under House rules, the recapitulation would be limited to those who already had responded, and they were proscribed from changing their vote. When the recount was completed, validating the original results, Rayburn announced (some say "mumbled"):

"No correction to the vote. The vote stands, and the bill is passed. Without objections, a motion to reconsider is laid on the table."

It was all over but the shouting, because the words "laid on the table" meant the subject of reconsideration had been decided adversely and could not be revived except by unanimous consent. Still, there was plenty of shouting from both the floor and the galleries.

The outvoted and outflanked Republican leaders denounced the speaker's tactics and accused him of short-circuiting the reconsideration process. Rayburn kept his composure. He was patient with members who seemed not to understand that only those who voted with the winning side could move for reconsideration -- and stern with those who challenged his integrity. "The Chair does not intend to have his word questioned by the gentleman from Minnesota or anyone else," he told one member icily. Opponents got the message, and the debate fizzled out.

Three days later, after the Senate had approved the slightly different House bill and thus prevented another confrontation in the lower chamber, Rayburn decided he and his colleagues deserved a rest.

"I want to go home {to Bonhom, Tex.}," he said in calling for adjournment. "I live on a broad highway, in a white house where everyone can find me; but I have another little place . . . . When I start toward that place -- and it is about 13 miles from my home farm -- the road gets narrower and narrower every mile I go; and when I get to the end of the narrowest part of the road, there is a gate and there is no telephone out there."

Another gavel stroke emptied the chamber and brought an end to Rayburn's first year as speaker. The battle over draft extension was one of his finest hours in a long and distinguished congressional career. Any reservations or ill feelings about the outcome would disappear on Dec. 7, 1941.

John Leyden is a free-lance writer who lives in Davidsonville, Md.