Forty years after linking up on the Elbe River, U.S. and Soviet war veterans returned today to the tiny village where they first met for an emotional reunion to invoke the spirit of their wartime alliance.

At a river bank memorial honoring the Red Army and their allies in the "anti-fascist victory," the Soviets and Americans hugged, posed for pictures and swapped souvenir rubles for dollars in an evocation of their historic encounter. Communicating mostly through smiles and gestures, they managed to bridge language and cultural barriers in the same manner they did four decades ago.

The ceremonies marking the meeting of the U.S. and Soviet armies were remarkably devoid of the hostile anti-American rhetoric that has characterized many of the wartime anniversary events organized by the Communist authorities in East Germany in recent months.

In the speeches following the ritual laying of wreaths at the foot of the stone monument, Soviet and East German dignitaries dwelled on the theme of East-West peace. A message from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, read to the crowd of about 5,000 people assembled in the chilling rain, declared that "the handshake of U.S. and Soviet soldiers on the Elbe stands as a symbol of hope and friendship."

Torgau's mayor, Horst Straehl, expressed "deep respect for the memory of 450,000 U.S. servicemen and all other victims . . . of the anti-Nazi alliance."

Despite the conciliatory tone, the U.S. government, along with France and Britain, decided to boycott the festivities over the shooting last month of Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., a member of the U.S. military liaison mission in Berlin. Nicholson was killed by a Soviet sentry who discovered him taking photographs near a Soviet Army camp not far from the East German town of Ludwigslust.

But for the 60 men of the 69th Infantry Division, their wives and dozens of other U.S. "Veterans for Peace" who came here, the prevailing political tensions with Moscow seemed unfathomable as they reveled in intoxicating memories of American soldiers embracing their unknown Soviet allies at the close of the war.

Many of the veterans voiced understanding for Washington's protest action but said they felt a solemn duty to participate because of the overriding need to revive Soviet-American friendship "in the spirit of the Elbe" at a time when distrust is endemic between Moscow and Washington. But the former soldiers were less understanding about President Reagan's plan to stop at a German military cemetery in Bitburg during an official visit to West Germany in May.

"Reagan has abdicated all victory ceremonies, so it only makes our event in Torgau all the more important," said Leroy Wolins of Pullman, Mich., a vice commander of the "Veterans for Peace." "He could have visited American war graves at Malmedy, but instead Reagan is going to a place where those soldiers who shot at Americans are buried."

Through their unique ties with Soviet war veterans, the Americans from the Elbe campaign are convinced they can enhance dialogue with the Russians through private channels.

"Governments can talk, but people can do better," said Dr. William Robertson, who was honored by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for establishing contact on April 25 with a fellow lieutenant from the Soviet Army, Alexander Silvashko.

The two men, who crawled out warily on a decrepit bridge spanning the Elbe to greet each other 40 years ago, met again last month near Minsk, in a small town where Silvashko works as a secondary school principal.

"It's really been good seeing him again after all these years," said Robertson, a neurosurgeon from Culver City, Calif. He added that they discussed at length how their bizarre rendezvous in the middle of the river ultimately transpired.

The American said he led a four-man jeep patrol into Torgau after hearing that the Russians had reached the banks of the Elbe. He painted a makeshift U.S. flag on a bedsheet and went up into the tower of a castle beside the river to signal the Russians that American forces had arrived. Instead of welcoming cries, Robertson received a hail of small arms fire.

Hiding in the trees on the other side Silvashko said he suspected a trick at the time by Germans posing in U.S. uniforms. Moreover there was a dense fog that made identification difficult, he said.

"It was really hard to tell Germans from Americans because we had never seen the Americans before," said Ivan Samchuk, a Soviet tank captain at the time.

Another Soviet veteran, then Maj. Alexei Gorlinsky, said the Americans failed to fire the green flares that were supposed to signal their approach.

"I nearly killed Robertson," Gorlinsky recalled. "Then by 2 in the afternoon, the fog was lifting and we could hear U.S. soldiers shouting, 'Hitler kaput, hooray.' "

Once Robertson and Silvashko clarified matters on the bridge, the U.S. and Soviet veterans broke out vodka, beer and wine to celebrate their historic meeting with fervor.

John Gillman of Milwaukee remembers taking part in a vodka-drenched fishfry with about 250 American and Soviet soldiers, who caught dinner by tossing hand grenades into the river to stun the fish.

Albert Hornyak, from Cleveland, told Silvashko through an interpreter how impressed he was by the female soldiers in the Soviet Army. "I remember dancing with this Russian girl who had a machine gun bouncing around on her big breasts," Hornyak said to the Russian. After being told she was probably living in Moscow now, Hornyak replied, "Boy, I'd sure love to see her."

Some of the Americans who sported war decorations on their lapels proudly displayed honorary medals, such as the Order of Alexander Nevsky, that they had received on previous trips to wartime reunions in the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, for their part, seemed content to gaze at photographs of past gatherings with the Americans while struggling to tell how happy they were to be reunited today with their wartime allies.

"We speak different languages but our feelings are the same," said Alexander Gordeyov, another member of the front line Soviet regiment on the Elbe. "We swore then not to wage war again, and it is even more important now in the nuclear age."

Following a reception at the town's cultural center, the veterans paid tribute to Joseph Polovsky, a Chicago cab driver who devoted his postwar life to rebuildling the spirit of exuberant camaraderie that reigned between Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe.

Polovsky was part of a six-man American patrol led by Lt. Albert Kotzebue that actually reached the Soviet lines by crossing the Elbe in a skiff hours before Robertson made his historic connection with Silvashko on the Torgau bridge.

Their patrol, however, was sharply reprimanded back at headquarters for disobeying orders not to proceed too far east. In the end, their effort was duly recognized in history as the first contact between Russian and American soldiers.

Before he died, Polovsky requested that he be buried in Torgau to commemorate the cause of Soviet-American friendship. That wish was fulfilled on Nov. 26, 1983, when Polovsky was borne to his grave in Torgau by an escort of Soviet and U.S. war veterans.