After ordering generations of American prisoners of war to tell enemy captors "only name, rank, service number, and date of birth," the armed forces appear ready to change the Code of Conduct, admitting they asked too much of men under torture.

A committee of Pentagon officials and highly decbrated servicemen who spent three months reviewing the code attacked the "name, rank, service number, and date of birth" restriction -- the "big four, nothing more" rule -- as unrealistic and unworkable.

"All men will, under conscious high-level pain torture, capitulate if kept in a conscious state and given an opportunity," the Defense Review Committee for the Code of Conduct was told by one of dozens of former POWS interviewed.

The committee recommended that one word be deleted and one word changed in the section of the Code that has been the source of the military "big four, nothing more" rule.

As a result, captured prisoners would be instructed to try to confine themselves to the "big four" and supplement this response with cover stories or ruses. However, if a POW passed his limit of tolerance to pain, and revealed what he should not, he would no longer be taught to consider himself collaborator, or a total failure. Rather, he would be urged to "bounce back" -- to renew resistance for the next bout with the interrogator, always giving ground grudgingly.

The article now reads, in part: "When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am bound to give only name, rank, service number and date of birth."

The committee proposed that the word "only" be deleted and the word "bound" be changed to "required."

The change from "bound" to "required" reflects the committee's concern that "lower grade ground troops who have more limited educational backgrounds" might find the "more poetic" word bound confusing and misleading. The deletion of the word "only" is intended to be the substantive change.

POWs are required to tell their captors the "big four" under the Rules of the Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of POWs.

Rewording a rule for which men died posed its problems for the committee, which likened its taks to "reinventing the wheel" in its impart on the military.

"I know people who think Moses came down from the Mount with the code under his arm and you just don't mess with it," said a Defense Department official.

But the 11-member committee of whom fear are former POWs concluded that retaining the hard-line approach in the face of the Vietnam experience was to ignore reality. Many POWs told the committee the hard-line position plays into the hands of the captor.

"The period immediately after being broken is a period of deep depression, and a feeling of failure. A good interrogator picks up on that." Lt. Col. Floyd J. Thompson, a POW for nine years, told the committee.

Dr. William Miller, a psychologist and authority on how people respond to captivity told the committee ". . . the guilt and depression they (POWs) felt for not having lived up to the 'big four,' assuming that is what they were supposed to do, is a tremendous additional debilitator. As a matter of fact, that, more than any one thing, sent a lot of people down the toboggan slide."

The committee, which met 21 times during a three-month period and interviewed scores of former POWs from World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam, concluded that the orig inal drafters of the Code of Conduct never meant for the "big four" rule to be taken literally.

The code, issued in 1955 by President Eisenhower as an executive order, is composed of six articles, in the form of an oath, which set the standard of conduct for American servicemen in combat. It is considered by many to be the soldier's "Ten Commandments."

The committee took the position that the "big four" rule, the keystone of the code was perverted by subsequent Defense Department publications that cast the now familiar "hard line" interpretation on the Code.

Even among branches of the service, however, interpretations varied.

"The Air Force wanted their men to fabricate stories, the Army and Marines were hard-liners and interpreted the code literally, and the Navy was generally ambivalen," a former Army chief of staff told the committee.

"Many of our command and living problems in North Vietnam were directly attributable to the wide variance in interpretations between members of the different services and even between branches within a service." Marine Lt. Col. John H. Dunn, a former POW told the committee, according to the official report.

"When senior officers were replaced by officers from a different service, many of the standard policies would change. I am certain this was very evident to our captors and disclosed a point of weakness on our part. It also produced a good deal of confusion and conflict among us prisoners," the report said, summarizing Dunn's comments.

The armed forces considered standardizing training during the Vietnam war and issuing directives adopting a "soft line" but the decision to review the code was postponed.

They feared any midwar change of the code would demoralize those still in captivity who had been trying to measure up to a stiffer standard.

Some who testified said they never took the code literally. Others said they knew of men who took it so literally that they would not answer a captor's question as to whether they wanted something to eat. Hunger was not one of the "big four."

"A lot of guys took a hell of a lot more abuse than they needed to. Some of them may have died," a Defense Department official said.

If the revised code is adopted, the most visible and immediate change would be servicewide standardization and probable expansion of the armed forces Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape programs (SERE) which now train about 5,000 men and women, mostly combat aviation crews, to undergo the rigors of being POWs.

The committee's recommendations are expected to be submitted to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown within a month, and then forwarded to the President for final approval according to a Defense Department official.

The Secretary of Defense's endorsement is sufficient to revamp the armed forces training programs, but presidential approval is needed for any rewording of the code itself.

The three major training centers located in remote portions of Maine, Washington state and California, conduct seven to 12-day exercises of which two to three days are spent in barbed-wire encircled POW compounds guarded by men in foreign uniforms.

The centers have been off-limits to journalists and curiosity seekers, and the specifics of the training programs have been classified as "secret" according to Lt. Col. Robert Goertz of the Fairchild Air Force Base center.

A briefer, less rigorous version of SERE training is offered at Virginia's Ft. Belvoir for Army lieutenants. For eight hours the men are held in a simulated POW camp and put through intensive work details interrogation and indoctrination sessions, while guards dressed in mock-Soviet uniforms shout at them.

In a June 20 SERE exercise at Ft. Belvoir, 15 of 114 who went through the program had to be examined by medics for fatigue or minor injuries. There were no major injuries and have been none in the program's six-year history, a SERE instructor said.

Critics of SERE training say it is sadistic and hazardous, that there should be "more intellectual content to it, and less stress on the play-acting."

Others say it is impossible to recreate the sort of "highly attenuated isolation with its drawn-out psychological breakdown" that occurs after months or years of captivity behind-enemy lines.

But even its critics within the military say "it is a valid subject. The question is not if you teach it, but how you teach it."

Most former POWs who testified before the committee were adamant about preserving and expanding SERE training.

"Our troops today are not properly trained regarding the code or during SERE training. The two are inseparable and unless we train our servicemen thoroughly in such matters, we are criminally negligent." Lt. Col. Floyd J. Thompson, a POW for nine years in North Vietnam, told the committee.

Another former POW told the committee it would be "immoral to withhold information that is essential for survival" and that SERE training is indispensable.

"Criticism in general or legal suits filed for injuries sustained in a POW training compound, as has happened recently is the price we've got to pay if we're going to have training which will enable our men to perform effectively in a POW situation." Rear Adm. W. P. Lawrence told the committee. The committee's report did not elaborate on either criticism or suits.

The committee has proposed settinz up a board to review and monitor SERE training to insure its uniformity and to make sure injuries are kept at a minimum.

The committee sent its recommendations to the President and the Secretary of Defense with an acknowledgment that its work is not the final word on the Code of Conduct.

"Some periodic review of the code is essential to insure timely response to major changes in PW treatment by potential adversaries," it said.