Claude E. (Ed) Whitmoyer stepped out of a dark brown limousine and into a welcoming party here today as about 50 neighbors cheered and rallied around the former Beirut hostage to celebrate his release.

Dozens of yellow ribbons had been tied to trees for three blocks, and across the doorway of the 38-year-old Air Force technical sergeant's house was a banner reading "Welcome Home Mr. Ed."

Whitmoyer, dressed in pale green slacks and a striped shirt, climbed out of the limousine with his family and posed for cameras, hugging his wife Judy, and children Tracy, 14, and Danny, 11.

"It's a very great pleasure to be back here," he said. " . . .there were 39 of us who went through some rough times." He said that he and the other hostages that were held in Beirut were treated well and were allowed to see newspapers and listen to the radio, but described it as very tense time.

He said he was relieved that the captors appeared never to have learned of his top-secret military status. Russ Milligan, a neighbor and family friend, said that Whitmoyer was on his way home from an assignment in Greece for a 21-day visit when TWA Flight 847 was hijacked.

Judy Whitmoyer, an executive secretary with the Mid-Atlantic Toyota distributorship, said she had gotten through the 17-day ordeal "with a lot of faith, a lot of hope and a lot of faith in my husband."

Whitmoyer's capture had brought together neighbors of the middle-class subdivision who said they had not previously known one another.

In recent days, they said, they have chatted about the situation as they tied the ribbons, symbols of their hope for Whitmoyer's return, on trees and door posts. And today, many of them pulled out their lawn chairs to wait for Whitmoyer's homecoming.

"It's frightening to think that something like this can happen," said neighbor Mary Siddall, who said she travels frequently by plane.

At about 5 p.m., shortly before Whitmoyer returned home, several of Judy Whitmoyer's coworkers came to the house carrying salads, cakes and sodas to prepare for the celebration. One woman said that Toyota had arranged for the limousine -- and the welcoming champagne inside -- that took Ed Whitmoyer's family to Andrews Air Force base to greet him.

Before weaving his way through the crowd at his house Whitmoyer told reporters that his ordeal had taught him at least one lesson. It is important for Americans to understand, he said, that "there are other countries out there that are not as well off as we are. Americans need to make an effort to understand other cultures."

Of Nabih Berri, the Shiite leader who had helped negotiate the hostages' release, Whitmoyer said, "He went to great lengths to assure that we were all safe."

And in a message to the family of Waldorf, Md., resident Robert Stethem, who was killed at the beginning of the ordeal, Whitmoyer said, "Every one of us on the aircraft -- all 159 -- grieve for them."