The winter wind was fierce outside, kicking and churning the Thames River into ice-cold chops of form and spray. But at the U.S. Navy Submarine Base here, below deck on the USS Kamehameha, Cmdr. Edwin Linz, the ship's captain, seemed as steady as the eye of the storm.

Ever since he came down from the hills of Kentucky in 1961 to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, everything in Linz's life had been directed to the command of his own ship, and he exuberant that winter day, speaking of the beauty and exhilaration of command at sea, marching through narrow passageways lined with whirring electronic gear, a radiation monitoring device dangling from his hip like a miniature flashlight.

"Until the Trident is commissioned," he said, hands on hips, in his captain's quarters, "I have at my command more firepower than any other ship in the world. When this boat is on patrol, our job is to stay hidden. A potential enemy knows we are out there but never knows where.

"If I say 'right full rudder,' this boat goes right full rudder and there's nobody to answer for it but me. A fighter pilot appreciates the beauty of flight," said Linz. "I appreciate the power of command and the beauty of stealth."

Linz still appreciates command at sea, but today, months after that stormy winter afternoon, he is a ship's captain no more. On May 18, in an extraordinary act, he asked to be relieved of the very job he had sought and struggled for ever since he left Annapolis 16 years ago.

Citing irreconcilable differences he has with the way the nuclear Navy is run, he asked his superiors to relieve him of duty. His decision, he said, was a matter of principle, a protest against the constant "rudder orders," "negativism," and interference of fleet regulations and bureaucratic procedures that ". . . leaves no time to correct morale problems abroad ship or to hone skills in anything else."

It was a case of "professional emasculation," Linz said -- something a captain cannot tolerate.

So several weeks ago he did the unthinkable. He fired off a harsh letter to Adm. Hyman G. Rickover attacking his leadership and asking to be relieved of duty, and, very quickly, he was relieved. He is at home now, in Gales Ferry, Connl, taking a $17,000 cut in extra command and nuclear pay, and awaiting reassignment "to Adak, or Timbuktu."

Linz is sure the Navy will punish him, but it was, he said, an intolerable situation that called for an extraordinary kind of conscientious objection only a captain can honorably make. Most important, Linz said, it because a matter of duty and dignity in the end, a matter he was schooled in long ago at Annapolis.

Of the top 50 graduates of the U.S. Navy Academy's class of 1965, Edwin Raymond Linz is one of only 16 men who today remain on active duty in the Navy, still contending with the burdens, hardships and inspiration of service, and for the most part, still clinging to the dreams with which they first marched off to become warriors and Leaders of Men.

In the 16 years since leaving Annapolis, they have advanced to the point where most of them are commanders and many have their own ships. Craig Etka is the commanding officer of the USS Pogy, a fast nuclear attack submarine based in Vallejo, Calif., and George Kent, the brainy midshipman known by his classmates as Mr. Spock, is an executive officer on nuclear sub based in Charleston, S.C.

Joseph (Jette) Browne, the Vietnam air controller, is now the commander of the USS Mahan, a frigate currently steaming somewhere in the Atlantic, and Sammy Dutrow is in the civil engineering corps, repairing subs at a Navy shipyard in Honolulu.

Thomas Blake Humphreys, who flew attack jets in Vietnam, is in California now, heading research and development of the Tomahawk cruise missile, and John Chubb, the former Vietnam swift-boat commander who later became a Navy recruiter in Seattle, is an oceanographer here at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

These are the survivros, people who began their service as boys and endured the war and strife at home, who put up with the family separations and the grind of rising through the ranks. They still measure time on a 24-hour clock, their vacations are still known as liberty, and their symbols of life's achievement remain the wings, dolphins, stars and bars of Navy. They still salute, still square their hats and still step to the same military rhythms they learned long ago at that peculiar insular place at Annapolis where the Severn meets the bay.

The reason they all stayed, while so many of their classmates left, was probably best explained by Hugh Reeves Adair, a staffer in Rickover's office who is now awaiting his own command of a nuclear submarine.

"It is," he said, "a life made up of goals. Achieve one, go on to the next. There is no reason for anyone to stay in the service unless he wants to be a commander: of a ship, a battalion, whatever. I was trained to be an officer and a leader. That's what I am. That's all I'll ever want to be."

To lead, then, is the naval imperative that still steers their lives, through and beyond all the budget cutbacks and travail and tribulation the world has seen ever since those brighter days 20 years ago, when there was a Navy man's president and a future that seemed boundless.

In a sense, they had vindicated these days for having gutted it out. In the New Conservativism, and President Reagan, they see better days ahead for the military, in everything from salaries to weaponry to the warriors' image in the public mind. As Bill Fries said, "When I was growing up the heroes were John Wayne and Kennedy. It's gotten to the point where heroes are weaker and fewer. Perhaps now that mood is changing."

"The military," Adair said, "will always be viewed as a tremendous hole into which we throw money, until it is needed. I think there is a growing perception that we, as military men, are needed."

But beyond the transitory mood of national politics, the 16 survivors retain a sense of unusual pride about the peciliar lives they chose to lead 20 years ago. "I'm a patriot," said Donald Edward Bonsper. "Always was, always will be."

Bonsper, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who recieved bronze and silver stars for action in Vietnam, is now a battalion commander at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He sometimes stiffens when a car backfires on the street, remembrs his experiences in Asia with a mixture of nostalgia and saddeness, and retains an intense fascination with international politics, following crises that erupt form the Middle East to Afghanistan, just as he followed those crises long ago, when he was a midshipman at Annapolis, perusing maps of strange places like the Mekong Delta and the imperial city of Hue.

He has been to war and remains a warrior. His brown hair is still cut near the skin, and his boots are still a glossy black. His job, as he learned it on the Severn, is to be ready, so he stays ready, and this day, in an old weatherbeaten barracks at Camp Pendleton, in the rolling desert hills north of San Diego, he is talking about the domino theory and Vietnam and looking toward El Salvador.

"War," he said, "is not Canasta. In Vietnam we were never serious enough. The was has come and gone and the communists have taken over. Latin America belongs to the United States, more than Vietnam ever did. It is our strategic rear. The time may come when the Marines are ordered there. I think the lesson of Vietnam, that all of us should have learned, is that political wars should be left to military leaders. . . . That way we can regain our credibility."

Of all character traits, none are more highly regarded by these 16 men than respect and credibility. They learned respect, after all, in a place where respect meant everything, as plebes in a military crucible that was Annapolis. They became credible themselves, as men and officers, when they answered their orders in kind.

In peacetime, when there are no enemies to fight, no glory to be gotten, respect and credibility are all. Thus, Linz, the dissenting submarine commander, a squat, well-muscled man with dark eyes and hair, felt compelled to make a stand. He watched as more and more of his classmates, who also became nuclear submariners, left the service as soon as their commitments were up. He stayed, though, gutting it out, drawn by the power of command. Finally, he got command, found it exhilarating at sea, but frustrating and embittering in port when he had to contend daily with superiors demanding justifications and explanations for every change of course, and adding mountains of new tests and new checklists to follow.

"The Three Mile Island incident," he said, "has had the effect of blessing everything done in the Navy. . . . There are no critics of this [nuclear] program anymore, just Rickover and many bureaucrats and pretenders to his throne.It was time for me to make a stand.

"The Russians," he said, "are unafraid of us. They don't have a free press. They are free to build bigger and more powerful nuclear ships that can dive deeper and go faster than anything we have. . . . In any arms race with them having to do with nuclear power, we will lose because our legs are tied by procedure. It's time to find something else, some other form of propulsion, because, the way we are going about it, nuclear power is ineffectual."

Now, after the protest, Linz waits for the Navy's response. The reason he stays in the Navy remains the same as ever. As he put it, that stormy day in his quarters when he was still captain of the Kamehameha, "I took the responsibility and I get a heck of a charge inspiring people."

Time and experience have a way of changing dreams and goals, as 34 members of the top 50 found when they decided to leave the service. For the remaining 16, things have changed as well. The money they are making as commanders, on average $50,000 to $60,000 a year, is comparable to what their academy contemporaries are making as civilians. They, like their civilian colleagues, live in middle-class homes in middle-class neighborhoods within driving distance of work, the primary difference being that they leave their homes in uniform in the morning and go to work at places such as Battalion Headquarters, Camp Pendleton, Calif., or to the U.S. Navy Submarine Base in Charleston, S.C.

There are other differences as well, of course. Bonsper looks at El Salvador now, for one, while Linz takes an unusual personal stand.

But some things don't change that much. The naval mystique, mellowed by time, lives on.

The "Lucky Bag," the Annapolis yearbook for the class of 1965, described Thomas Blake Humphreys thusly: "Every Saturday, Tom could be seen wending his way to the drag house, with Marty, his fiancee, on one arm and a bag of groceries in the other. Tom and Marty were so inseparable that it is impossible to conceive of one without the other. No matter what career path Tom chooses, the two of them are sure to have a happy and successful life."

It seemed like something out of a June Allyson and Jimmy Stewart movie, this small piece of script about a Naval officer and his fiance who was also his best pal. But as events turned out, the story of Tom and Marty Humphreys has been more fairy tale-like, and more mystical, than anything Hollywood or the Navy could ever concoct.

They were married the day Humphreys graduated, June 9, 1965, in the chapel at the academy. Humphreys became a fighter pilot and went to Vietnam. Marty Humphreys kept a black maternity dress in her closet at home to attend the almost monthly funerals of her husband's comrades who had been shot down or crashed somewhere in Indochina.

She was, however, an independent sort who never felt completely at ease at the tea parties other Navy wives held on the base at Lemoore, Calif., because she was outspoken. When Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher turned over the USS Pueblo to the North Koreans, she said it was the only thing he could do, considering the Koreans had him outmanned and outgunned. She stood her ground, despite the fact that other wives were rather silent on the subject and most naval officers strenuously disagreed, saying Bucher should have fought and gone down with his ship.

She also tried to organize a maverick effort among other naval wives to compile a list of MIAs and POWs -- before such efforts became fashionable -- and succeeded, despite the fact that most wives declined to help, saying they weren't supposed to get into anything controversial.

Then, on her fifth wedding anniversary, June 9, 1970, Marty Humphreys felt a strange queasy sensation in her stomach, a sensation so intense that she became dizzy and had to sit down, she said. It came suddenly, she said, the kind of thing that was so striking that she remembered it five years later when her husband, who didn't talk much about the horror he saw in Asia, told about an experience he had, on the same day, at about the same time, but thousands of miles away while flying over Laos.

That was the time he came close to death, he said, when he banked his A7 fighter plane too sharply to avoid ground fire and ended up flying out of control in a dark Laotian valley.

Well, the plane righted itself, Tom Humphreys said. The pain in her stomach subsided, Marty Humphreys said. The two of them have gone on to live the kind of blissful life the Lucky Bag" promised they would. They live in Thousand Oaks, Claif., now, and Marty Humphreys has become a screen writer who has written episodes of the Fat Albert cartoon series. Their three children, fulfilling another fairy tale, have all earned money as bright-eyed all-American children featured in McDonald's, Band-Aid, Magnavox and Folger's television commercials.

Humphreys, meanwhile, is test director for the Tomahawk cruise missile project, a weapon he said wouldn't have made a great deal of difference in Vietnam even if the Navy had it back then because, "with all the restrictions placed on us, I doubt it would have been used."

Then, thinking a moment about all the years of war and domestic strife that have occurred since those days at Annapolis when he would walk across the campus with his fiance on one arm and a bag of groceries in the other, he remarked: "I probably shouldn't say this, but to tell you the truth, if there was another war like Vietnam going on now, I'd send my oldest son to Canada and join him there myself."

But with 20 hard years of duty in, Humphreys said he felt brave enough to say it anyway. These days he is looking ahead and thinking about leaving the service because there's a lot more he would like to see and do in life, he said.He likes to work with young people, so maybe he'll teach high school. He also has a friend named Jerry who wants him to help start a new commuter airline service in California. Humphreys still loves to fly, of course, and he said he is considering it, yes, but his wife, as outspoken as ever, says "Tom and Jerry Airlines" just doesn't have quite the right ring to it.