Yellow ribbons of welcome sprouted again as dozens of Americans freed from Trans World Airlines Flight 847 returned to the United States yesterday, while families of 42 still-captive American men, three of them on interrupted honeymoons, prayed and waited.

A special State Department working group, similar to one established during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980-81, when yellow ribbons became popular symbols of hope for the hostages' safe return home, was keeping the families posted on developments at least once a day and contacted them twice yesterday, a spokesman said.

As several planes carrying freed passengers arrived in New York, Chicago, Boston and other cities, many former hostages were debriefed by U.S. government personnel and asked if they cared to step up to waiting microphones and cameras to tell their stories to the nation.

Several declined, some saying that before leaving Paris they had made a pact with wives of those still held captive not to talk until all of the hostages are released.

Fourteen freed Illinois hostages, part of a group of 34 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returned to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last night and were greeted by about 100 relatives and friends, some carrying bouquets of flowers.

Two Roman Catholic priests still captive had wished the released hostages farewell as they left the plane, according to returning hostage Frank Scibetta of Geneva, Ill. He quoted the Rev. James W. McLoughlin of St. Peter's Church in Geneva, as saying, "Well, goodbye, we'll be right behind you."

The other captive priest is the Rev. Thomas J. Dempsey of St. Patrick's Church in St. Charles, Ill. So far, 26 members of the Illinois group, many of them from St. Margaret Mary parish in Algonquin, Ill., have been freed as has the parish's pastor, the Rev. P. William McDonnell.

Geneva Mayor Richard Lewis has asked residents to tie yellow ribbons around trees and lamp posts and leave on porch lights for the captives.

In Boston, more than a dozen returnees were greeted by cheers from family, friends and observers gathered behind security gates. The freed travelers, some wearing clothes bought in Paris, introduced families to each other before separating to go home.

"I felt very guilty that I was leaving those men on the plane," said Sharon Barnes of Bar Harbor, Maine, who had been vacationing in Greece. "It was like a nightmare." She said she plans to travel on a European airline next time.

Barnes and another released New England woman called their captors "compassionate," but others spoke of the terrorists' brutality.

Arriving in Kansas City, Mo., freed flight attendant Judy Cox said the terrorists threatened several times to kill the hostages, adding, "Everyone on board knew you had to stay calm to stay alive."

The father of nurse Penny Bamford, a released captive believed on her way home from Paris, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his daughter told him she was mentally tortured by a hijacker who placed an apparently unloaded pistol to her head and pulled the trigger.

Meanwhile, the captives' families kept an uneasy vigil.

"I'm happy one minute when I hear what I think is good news, and then I'm miserable the next minute. It's awful," said Jill Brown, 39, of Stowe, Mass., whose husband, Robert, is being held.

She and her two children have been hounded by "newspapers I've never heard of," she added. She said the State Department has been "just great" and that TWA called her the night the plane was hijacked.

Brown, an international representative for Medi-Tech, a medical instruments company in Watertown, Mass., was in Greece on a one-week business trip.

In Boxford, Mass., Susan Traugott, whose brother-in-law, Ralf, 32, is a captive, called President Reagan's refusal to ask Israel to trade 800 Lebanese prisoners for the hostages' release "ridiculous semantics . . . . Just do it and get it done," she said. "These are people's lives they are dealing with." Ralf Traugott is a car dealer.

Robert Trautmann Jr., 37, of Laredo, Tex., was among hostages removed from the plane in Beirut Friday night, reportedly for having Jewish-sounding names. "He is Catholic, not Jewish," said Javier Santos, Trautman's uncle. Trautman was among several Laredo residents aboard the plane.

In Newbury Park, Calif., a Los Angeles bedroom community, the wife of captive Thomas Murry, 58, a field service engineer for Northrop Corp., waited with her two daughters. A family friend who answered the phone described the family as "worn out but hanging in. They have faith."

Eleni Targontsidis of Brockton, Mass., was uncertain whether her son, Arthur, 18, had been released. "We are worried sick," she said. "We were so happy he was coming home . . . . We have been sitting around our kitchen table since Friday morning when we first heard the news."

Targontsidis' name was on a list of those released, but the State Deptartment could not confirm that, said his mother, who is from Greece and speaks little English. The wife of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), a Greek, called to assure her that her son had been released, she added. Targontsidis had gone to Athens in December to study at Deree College and was on his way home for the summer.

Peter Maresca, brother of First Officer Philip G. Maresca, 42, of Salt Lake City, said from his home in Baldwin, L.I., "At first it was a shock. We couldn't believe it. Now it is a nightmare that seems to be lasting forever."

Maresca's mother, Ruth, is "very upset," he said, while his father, Philip, a retired mechanic, is "taking things well, under the circumstances."

Peter Maresca added that, "If I had to be on that flight, I would want someone like Philip as first officer. He's very strong and reliable."

Captive Claude (Ed) Whitmoyer of Severn, Md., was scheduled to take an earlier flight home but was delayed when that plane developed mechanical problems, according to Russ Milligan, a neighbor. He was booked on a later flight but switched at the last moment.

Whitmoyer, whose family lives near Baltimore-Washington International airport, was transferred to Greece in December, Milligan said, and was headed home on leave.

The family of captive Clinton Suggs, 29, of Norfolk, meanwhile, appealed to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Coretta Scott King to intercede.