Kathleen Ambrose had waited nearly 20 years to place her hand on the casket of her father, Air Force Col. Melvin J. Killian.

Yesterday in Arlington National Cemetery, Ambrose lowered her head, kissed her palm and, crying softly, touched the gleaming coffin for a long moment.

Two decades after Killian was killed while on a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, and two months after his remains were identified and returned to the United States, his nine children and 13 grandchildren gathered for a full-honors Air Force funeral.

After a mass in Fort Myer's Post Chapel, a horse-drawn caisson bearing Killian's flag-draped casket wound slowly through the cemetery, coming to rest near the grassy slope where Killian's wife Miriam was buried in 1977.

A rifle party fired three volleys that reverberated from the hilltop. Overhead, four Air Force jets roared through gray skies, one plane dropping from formation to signify a pilot killed in action.

Then, one by one, Killian's grandchildren gathered around the casket, some stretching on tiptoe to place red roses on the lid.

For Kathleen Ambrose, 43, it was a moment she never expected to experience.

Her father, a career Air Force man, was flying out of Takhli Air Force base in Thailand in September 1965 when a missile hit his plane. He was officially termed missing in action, Ambrose said, but another pilot told Miriam Killian he was sure her husband was dead.

"We just sort of assumed the plane had exploded and there were no remains," Ambrose said before the funeral yesterday.

In February, an Air Force colonel showed up at Ambrose's home in Kingston, N.Y. "I thought he was going to tell me my father was alive, and all these things raced through my mind . . . . I thought, oh, God, it's been 20 years and my mother has died . . . . I said, 'You're not going to tell me my father is alive, are you?' and he said, 'No.' "

"I feel as if we've been given a beautiful gift from God," Ambrose added. "We're able to close a chapter in the book and bury him next to my mother. It's a wonderful feeling."

When Melvin Killian was killed, he left his wife and nine children ranging in age from 14 months to 23. All but the oldest two were living at home. Ambrose described the death as "a tremendous shock" to the close-knit family.

Although her father's career meant that the Killians were uprooted about every four years, the moves did not disrupt the family, Ambrose said. Her father made a game out of it; each time they moved, one child would be delegated to look up their new home in the atlas and tell the others about the unfamiliar place.

"He loved the military; he was proud to be in the miltary," Ambrose said of her father. His letters from Vietnam showed that "he thoroughly believed in what he was doing."

The remains of 105 persons identified as Americans, including Killian's and those of five other servicemen returned at the same time, have been recovered from Southeast Asia since 1974.

But many still are unaccounted for. A Defense Department spokesman said that 1,291 Americans are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action in Southeast Asia. Another 1,186 were killed in action but their bodies have not been found, he said.

At yesterday's graveside service, Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.) presented Ambrose, as the oldest surviving child, with a medal awarded to all families of men who are, or were, missing in action.

The heavy bronze-colored disc was engraved on one side, "Missing While Serving in the Defense of Freedom in Southeast Asia." On the other side, it read, "You are not forgotten."