The emotion, so stunning in its unexpected appearance, made the room fall still.

For 20 minutes, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb -- a tough former Marine captain, proud of his self-discipline -- this afternoon poured out to reporters an extraordinary soliloquy on his Vietnam war experiences, and heroism and death.

"If I ever erred at all," said the son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson when asked about letters he wrote to Johnson from Vietnam, "it was not, perhaps, in painting more of the negative side" of the conflict.

"What I wrote is what I believed," said Robb, adding that he purposely tried to be positive rather than add to the president's burdens.

"You really didn't want to get to know anybody all that well" because of the specter of sudden death on the battlefield, said Robb, who served 13 months in Vietnam during 1968-69. He spoke softly and resolutely defended the bravery of servicemen fighting a war that public opinion in the end did not support.

The governor seemed to struggle with the flood of memories of Vietnam, at one point seeming to apologize for telling "war stories," but at others recalling the nighttime patrols during which one Marine "stepped on a sleeping NVA North Vietnamese " and Robb himself jumped "literally in a foxhole that was warm" from an enemy soldier.

He told of docking the pay of one Marine in his unit for a minor discipline problem, only to see that man heroically die "on the very next operation" by distracting enemy fire so others could get to a wounded comrade. "He deliberately exposed himself . . . was cut in half by AK47 fire," Robb said to reporters gathered for what was expected to be a press conference on Virginia politics.

The governor's remarks on Vietnam and the dying there were apparently touched off by questions about his Vietnam letters and his own anguish over his role in the execution of condemned prisoners. They may also have been provoked by a recently released photo showing Johnson contorted in distress as he listened to a taped account from Robb about losing men in battle.

As Robb spoke, state officials were awaiting word on whether the Supreme Court would allow the execution tonight of Willie Lloyd Turner for the 1978 slaying of a jewelry store owner in the southern Virginia town of Franklin. Chief Justice Warren Burger, without explanation, later allowed an appeals court stay of execution granted Monday to remain in force.

Robb said he supports the death penalty, but has been "personally offended" by vengeful crowds that have gathered at the state penitentiary to cheer the state's last two executions.

The governor expressed the frustations of many Vietnam veterans. "There were troops that performed magnificently and probably never understood the reaction when they got home," Robb said, noting he has not returned to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington since the groundbreaking ceremony.

He said he is waiting for the right time to go there for what he knows will be a "very emotional moment."

"I try not to show a great deal of emotion. That's a very powerful experience."

Robb said he recently talked in his office with some soliders who were "traumatized" by the war and said he expected he would try to find on the memorial the names of some of those with whom he served.

Uncharacteristically, Robb seemed unable to let the subject go and continued to talk about Vietnam as he walked back to his office, stopping in the hallway outside his third floor Capitol office. Yes, he said, he'd like to go back to Vietnam, but not now.

"It might be misconstrued," he said, indicating it might be seen as political. "The toughest part was trying to justify to parents . . . to make them understand they victims were really serving their country," Robb said.

Asked during the news conference if he would support a recent call for a memorial for Americans who opposed the war, Robb simply said, "No." He added it was a "matter of conscience" and that "I don't happen to agree with them." Robb said it was "up to them to create that kind of memorial" and he would not oppose it.

Robb said the torrent of negative accounts of the war -- "I don't think it was inaccurate reporting" -- had an effect on the American troops. "The doubt at home permeated the atmosphere over there," he said, causing U.S. forces to lose the will and purpose of their mission.

Robb said no one doubted that "had we been willing to unleash the full power" of the United States it would have "wiped out the country," but he said Americans are a compassionate people who recoiled at the prospects of a "scorched earth policy."