Eighty-seven Army recruiting sergeants, in an unprecedented class-action suit, are trying to prove that the officer corps knew about and condoned fradulent enlistments.

The suit filed here rekindles the Army recruiting scandal and pushes to the fore the question of whether officers, as well as sergeants, should be held responsible for widespread cheating.

Even if the suit never goes to trial, the statements a civilian attorney is taking from the 87 recruiting sergeants and some officers add up to the charge that many of the ranks of the all-volunteer Army are being filled with people who could not qualify on their own.

"Somebody has to do something," said Army Sgt. 1st Class John Atkinson, an 18 1/2-year veteran, in explaining why he joined a suit that he fears will ruin his Army career. Atkinson, who supervises 17 recruiters in Winston-Salem, has been investigated as part of the Army's fraudulent recruiting probe but has not been charged.

The suit, filed March 25, demands that the Army stop punishing the 87 recruiters and restore them to their old jobs.

Defendants, who include Army Secretary Clifford Alexander and leaders of the Army's recruiting command are accused of imposing "must-win" and "cannot-fail" recruiting programs on sergeants to meet their quotas of volunteers.

The suit charges "the true purpose" of the Army's investigation into recruiting fraud last year and the resulting penalties against enlisted men, "was to suppress and cover up the extent of the knowledge and participation of defendants who knowingly imposed unattainable recruiting objectives and who nevertheless accepted the results of plaintiffs' recruiting activity."

The Army has not yet answered the sergeants' complaint. Its attorneys are expected to ask the federal judge to postpone trial until after the sergeants have exhausted their remedies for relief within the Army, a process that could take the better part of this year.

Three of the 87 recruiters were interviewed in the office of the civilian attorney, Mark L. Waple. The sergeants took pains, under Waple's advice, to stop short of acknowledging that they had committed fraud while on recruiting duty, but stressed that the system forces noncommissioned officers to meet quotas for volunteers.

They said it has been and will continute to be standard practice for officers to threaten recruiting sergeants with letters of reprimand, bad efficiency reports that can harm promotions and firing if quotas are not met.

"They tried to crucify 400 or 500 of us for something they condoned," said Atkinson in referring to the way Army higher-ups relieved hundreds of recruiting sergeants after the fraud investigation.

"The sergeants are tired of getting s--- on," added Sgt. 1st Class Marshall Brent Jackson, who was court-martialed after the investigation but was found innocent.

"We've been held responsible for our actions but no officers have been held responsible," Jackson continued.

"If they didn't know" about fraudulent recruiting practices, said Jackson, "they ought to be thrown out for being the most inefficient SOBs that ever existed. The writing was on the wall."

The writing, said Jackson who mobilized the sergeants to file the suit, included reports that the officers in charge routinely signj. For example, Jackson said, officers were responsible for signing letters that an applicant who failed the entrance test the first time had passed on his second try.

"I've got copies of blank re-test letters already signed," said Jackson in making the charge that officers did not ask any questions about applicants suddenly becoming bright because of the pressure to meet the quotas.

Other writing on the wall for officers, continued Jackson, included the list of disqualified applicants. "They see one guy disqualified because he only had nine years education. Then two or three weeks later, you'd see the same guy come back up enlisted, high school graduate. Officers see these every day.'"

Sgt. 1st Class David D. Dodson, recruiter of the year in 1978 for the Charlotte area and another plaintiff in the suit, was relieved of recruiting duty last year after the fraud investigation. He blamed the system and said that he and fellow sergeants had vainly sought to meet with Army Secretary Alexander to explain the problem before resorting to the lawsuit.

"We tried every way possible to get the Army's attention," said Dodson. "We tried the professional way, the soldierly way, and now the legal way.

"It seems like we're still being held liable and shown to be the ones responsible for what went on during all these irregularities in recruiting."

In agreeing with Jackson that officers turned a blind eye to fraudulent recruiting practices, Dodson said that the searches officers conducted in recruiting offices for such unauthorized materials as entrance tests and their answers were a standing joke.

"You threaten a man enough with relieving him and taking away his pay and sending him overseas and constantly working him 20 hours a damn day," said Jackson, "sooner or later he's going to do what the hell he has to do to get out from under the gun."

Atkinson, who was wounded three times on his two tours in Vietnam as leader of a rifle squad and said "it hurts" to sue the Army he loves, described the pressure on a recruiter to meet quotas.

"I've had it explained to me that as long as you don't get caught, you're the best thing since sliced bread. You are going to continue to get promotions as long as you meet the quotas.

"You'll be damned if you do and you'll be damned if you don't," said Atkinson of today's recruiting system.

The recruiters said they and their colleagues agree that the only way to keep recruiting honest is to settle for whatever number of high quality people can be signed up, as distinguished from imposing quotas. The draft would be the only way to make up the shortfall without putting unreasonable pressure on the recruiters, they said.

The sergeants also agreed in their roundtable interview that Army leaders are afraid to admit that the effort to recruit a high quality, all volunteer Army has failed.

Said Jackson, "The all volunteer Army is most definitely the biggest flop and biggest joke I've ever seen in my life."

Jackson, a former drill instructor added, "I would not want to go to war because of the trash we got in the Army right now. I'm just telling you like it is. I'm ruined, but I hope to achieve a better Army and to look out for a lot of these people who work for me and who have been ruined because of this investigation."

Waple said he is trying to get further documentation of officers's condoning of fraudulent recruiting practices by making a freedom of information request to the army for discussion papers, and eventually hopes to put Army officers on the stand in U.S. District Court here.