THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER Nimitz and its cruiser escorts Texas and California are returning from the Indian Ocean to a well-deserved celebration in Norfolk. Members of Congress have suggested that the festivities be enlivened with $325 extra in "hostile fire" pay for the crews. The sailors certainly deserve it. They and their families have been put to test of endurance, having been separated since the ships left port last September. The Nimitz has not been in port, any port, since Jan. 4. In that eight months, the crews have worked an average of 84 hours a week. Time and a half for overtime? No. Compensatory time off for extra hours? No. Special rates for Sunday and holiday work? No again.

The stint in the Indian Ocean was tough, but it differed only in degree from the common experience of military families. The standard work week for a sailor on board ship is 65 hours, no mattter where it is stationed. Wages, when spread over those those hours, run considerably below the minimum wage even for seamen with three or four years' experience.

Why do they do it? Common folklore holds that other benefits, not counted in base pay, more than compensate for Spartan wages; the proper comparison with civilian pay is "regular military compensation," which includes such things as housing allowances, tax advantages and even the value of the food a sailor eats aboard ship.

On that basis, how well do they do? For a marrried third-class petty officer returning to Norfolk, regular military compensation over the last eight months has been $2.54 per hour. A senior chief petty officer with 12 years' experience earns more but works longer hours -- about 96 hours a week. Hourly, that comes to $3.32 in regular military compensation, 22 cents an hour above the minimum wage.

It's useful to look at the wages paid for CETA public service jobs, another place where Congress sets wage levels.They average about $3.75 per hour, and no one argues that the work is worth more than a sailor's. Even then, some communities find the wages too low to persuade anyone to take the work.

Why the military people do it is a mystery not explained by economics. The reasons have to do with pride, competence, working as a team, feeling a sense of mission and -- yes -- patriotism.

The ceremony to welcome the Nimitz home is fine. A combat bonus is all right, too. But while we are at it, and while we are remembering those who fell in the rescue mission and in wars of the past, we should be seeing that military people get the respect they deserve -- and living wage.