Rear Adm. Neil Stevenson, chief of Navy chaplains, delivered the invocation at Saturday's memorial ceremony for 16 servicemen killed in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the Grenada invasion. He was identified incorrectly Sunday.

They returned to American soil at 3:52 this morning when most of the country was sleeping. They came in plain metal caskets, aboard a gray-and-white Air Force cargo jet. They were unloaded under tight security in the pre-dawn darkness and arranged in a row, each draped with an American flag.

The first 15 of more than 225 Marines killed in last Sunday's terrorist bombing in Beirut came home today, a cargo of "peace-keepers" on a plane built to carry military weaponry. Awaiting them here at Dover Air Force Base were grieving relatives, anguished U.S. military leaders and the bodies of eight soldiers killed in the Grenada invasion two days after the bombing.

The casket of one Grenadan casualty was laid beside those of the 15 from Lebanon this morning for a Marine memorial ceremony that wrapped up a week of wrenching events with a reminder of what has been lost.

The ceremony unfolded in a cavernous aircraft hangar, transformed for this occasion into a huge funeral chapel. Spanning the front of the hangar were the 16 coffins, each elevated by two cinderblocks just high enough to keep the flag-drapery from touching the ground. Behind the coffins stood Marines in dress blues, ramrod straight at attention, with shiny rifles and glistening bayonets.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God," Navy Capt. Eli Takesian, chaplain of the Marine Corps, prayed in a voice that echoed off the corrugated metal walls of the hangar. "We stand in awe before your sons . . . . They have presented themselves for your grace in the pursuit of peace."

Others spoke in sharper tones.

Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, called for a "new and enlightened national strategy to deal with the insidious, unenlightened and anti-Christ practices of individuals and governments that would condone such acts of violence" as the Beirut bombing.

Beside the podium where the military leaders spoke was a small bouquet of violet flowers, a gift from the second graders at the Dover Air Force Base elementary school. Above everyone, a massive American flag hung from the rafters, three stories high and 20 feet wide, the kind used on Fourths of July and Sundays.

A Marine Corps band from Quantico, Va., filled the hangar with the music of the Navy hymn, "Eternal Father," at the beginning and the Marine Corps hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma," at the end. The band played the hymns as dirges, drums muffled. One Marine band member was escorted out of the hangar at the outset of the ceremony when she began crying and could not stop.

"This cowardly, heinous act snuffed out the lives of more than 220 brave men," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Paul X. Kelley raged. "On a runway in Frankfurt last Monday evening, I watched as 142 caskets were offloaded from an aircraft . . . . As I wept inside, I asked: 'Lord, where did we get such men?' And I was reminded if a nation is to be great, if a nation truly is to be the land of the free, that it also must be the home of the brave."

The families of three of the slain Marines, and of a fourth whose body has not yet been returned, sat huddled off to the side, hugging each other and weeping throughout the ceremony, their eyes fixed almost hypnotically on the metal boxes.

Cpl. Donald Giblin stood out among the civilian mourners in his dress Marine blues. He survived the Oct. 23 bombing, but his brother Timothy, 20, a sergeant, did not. Donald escorted his brother's remains here this morning, and was met by another brother, William, from North Providence, R.I. The two clutched each other throughout the 20-minute ceremony, fighting back tears until the last moments.

In contrast to the families of the slain Marines, Kelley, Watkins and most of the 38-member honor guard from Company A at the Washington Marine Barracks stood as motionless as statues, their faces expressionless. There was no White House representative.

There will be many similar ceremonies in coming days. Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), one of 11 congressmen who recently conferred with military officials preparing the bodies of the Beirut casualties, said he expected the remains to be sent home at the rate of 20 a day for more than a week.

At today's service, the caskets, called "transfer cases," were not identified, so no one knew which Marine or Navy man lay beneath which flag.

Which was Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Wilbur James, 20, a Baltimore native who joined the Marines at 18 because, in his mother's words, he was "a fighter"?

Or Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman George W. Piercy, 40, who served 13 months in Vietnam without injury, and went to Lebanon because, his mother said, he "felt he needed to be there"? Or Timothy R. Giblin, whose brothers so painfully felt his absence? Or Lance Cpl. Charles K. Bailey, 19, whose parents, sister and girlfriend drove here today from Berlin, Md.? Or Pfc. Marc L. Cole, of Ludlow Falls, Ohio, whose parents were able to fly here because their neighbors raised more than $600 to pay the way.

The nation has known for a week that it lost Marines, but the dead were abstractions. Today, as the grieving parents, sisters and brothers and widows entered the hangar and faced the caskets, the sense of loss that has wracked the country since last Sunday became immeasurably deeper, more personal.

Each casket seemed to entomb a world as well as a soldier--a family, friendships, a future and more. And each name of the dead, including those whose relatives were absent, took on more meaning.

Cpl. Rick R. Crudale, 21, West Warwick, R.I. Master Sgt. Matilde Hernandez Jr., 37, Austin, Tex. Cpl. Jeffrey W. James, 20, Baltimore. Staff Sgt. Charles R. Martin, 34, Colman, Ga. Sgt. James E. McDonough, 21, New Castle, Pa. Lance Cpl. Louis Melendez, 19, Santa Maria Calle, P.R. Sgt. Richard H. Menkins II, 21, Tully, N.Y. Lance Cpl. Ulysses G. Parker, 24, Baltimore. Sgt. John A. Phillips Jr., 23, Wilmette, Ill. Gunnery Sgt. Charles R. Ray, 33, Sunbury, Pa. First Lt. Charles J. Schnorf, 24, Delaplane, Va. Capt. Jeb F. Seagle, 30, Jacksonville, N.C.

Robert and Sandra Cole of Ludlow Falls walked arm-in-arm into the hangar, their emotions barely controlled, and took their seats in the yellow section of the folding chairs. Robert Cole, his eyes swollen from tears and lack of sleep, put his arm around his wife and held her close as she tried without success to stop crying.

Brothers William and Donald Giblin walked in clutching each other as if each could not believe that he, unlike his brother, Timothy, remained alive. Donald, the corporal, tried at times to smile, but could not. He was in control until the band played the Marine Corps hymn at the end. Then his Marine-hard face collapsed, and he and William buried themselves in each other's embrace, heaving sobs.

The families participated only as observers at the service, which was strictly military, complete with the honor guard that marches at burials at Arlington National Cemetery. At the end, each family member had a few private words with Kelley and Watkins. The two men walked through the five rows of folding chairs, shaking hands and in some cases embracing each mourner.

When Kelley came to Sandra Cole, she fell into his arms. He hugged her for several seconds, then patted her briskly on the back, like a gentle version of a drill sergeant, as if to say it was time to straighten up. He also embraced Patricia Briscoe, mother of Lance Cpl. Davin M. Green, who attended the service although her son's body has not yet been returned to the United States.

Not until almost all had left the hangar did any of the mourners express himself publicly. Robert Cole walked up to a knot of reporters, indicating he had something to say. His voice cracked. He started again:

"We were very proud to have our son be a Marine," he said softly and sadly. "My son had written home and said we needed to be there. We're thankful for our president. He's a strong man. He loves these men as much as we love our son."

He paused for several seconds, as if gathering strength for what came next.

"We love our son. We did not want our son to die," he blurted out. "But he did not die in vain."

With that, he and his wife turned away, and walked outside where day was just breaking.