Hours before flying to Delaware last night to await the bodies of their comrades killed in Beirut, more than 200 Marine escorts stood at attention in the front pews of the chapel at Quantico Marine Base as "Taps" shivered into silence.

"We will never forget" the Marines killed in Lebanon and Grenada, thundered Chaplain C.L. Keyser. "We will never cease to be thankful: We will never cease to honor them and their families."

With their ribbon records of bravery stark on their olive dress uniforms, the chosen escorts heard again the drumming of the Marine watchword: Semper Fidelis--Always faithful.

"We know only too well," said Keyser, "that America will be the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave."

Under the etched-glass windows recalling the legends of Marine sacrifice, from Spain to Guadalcanal, Okinawa to China, the 226 known dead were promised an eternal life.

"Let not your heart be troubled," a tense and haggard Brig. Gen. J.E. Hopkins read from the Gospel of John. "I go to prepare a place for you."

Stepping down from the pulpit, Hopkins, the head of the Marine Development Center at Quantico, spoke with barely controlled emotion of "the long and continuing struggle of free men against brutal communist aggression."

"Their principles were clear and noble," Hopkins repeated. "They laid down their lives so that men and women of every race and every creed might have the opportunity to seek the joys of freedom and human dignity and decency." Looking straight through the 700-seat chapel overflowing with uniformed mourners, as though he could see the flag at half staff on the grass beyond, Hopkins referred stumblingly to the "burden" of authority.

"Sending courageous men into harm's way is a duty that no leader takes lightly. Quite to the contrary, he carries that burden and its consequences throughout his life."

"It is especially appropriate," Hopkins continued, "that as we pray for our fallen comrades and their grieving families--and for every marine and sailor and soldier and airman on duty in the world today--that we add our special prayers for our president and our military leaders. They will need our unqualified support, our unstinted loyalty."

Throughout the afternoon, a series of striking confluences lent extra drama to the ceremonies.

At the main entrance gate, where the miniature copy of the Iwo Jima memorial flew its lowered flag, a handful of reddened leaves clung like wounds to the bodies of the bronze marines.

At the memorial service, as the color guard turned toward opposite corners of the altar, the spearhead tips of their flagpoles hooked together, as if for a moment the Marine banner and the American flag were one.

And finally, in the midst of that most moving of military death notices, a solo trumpet "Taps," a baby cried.

"I am the Way," intoned Chaplain Keyser.

"The Marines," read a torn bumper sticker on a waiting car. "The Few."