A "welcome home" sign, cake, coffee and relatives waited at the Frantellencio Physical Fitness Center here this morning. A tinsel "Merry Christmas" sign hung in the front window.

There was to be a welcome-home ceremony, embraces and joy, for 250 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division who had spent six months half a world away, keeping the peace in the Sinai Desert. And now they were coming home.

Instead there were only tears, disbelief and deep sorrow. The flag at division headquarters, where a stuffed Santa Claus had been placed inside a UH1 Huey helicopter, flew limply at half mast.

The word had come on radio and television sets even as wives, mothers and children began to gather. The chartered plane had crashed on takeoff after refueling at Gander, Newfoundland; no one survived.

Pfc. Donald Woodruff, a military policeman, said he began receiving nervous phone calls from wives and mothers within an hour of the 5:15 a.m. crash. "They were all worried about their men," he said as he stood outside the Good News Pawn Shop across from the entrance to the base. "No one knew what to do."

Col. John P. Herrling, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, brought the news to more than 200 relatives and friends at the center at 9 a.m., the time the welcoming ceremony would have begun.

They greeted the news with quiet disbelief. There was no hysteria, Army spokesmen said.

"You have to accept this sort of thing because that's our job as soldiers," Staff Sgt. Johns Stubbs, 28, said later. "Us being soldiers, it could have happened to any of us."

Nevertheless, a sense of shock pervaded this base, which straddles the rolling green hills on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. There are 21,000 soldiers stationed here and 13,000 dependents live on base. About 45 percent of those on the downed aircraft had families here, base spokesmen said.

The irony was that the 250 soldiers had survived the most dangerous part of their duty. "Their mission was absolutely flawless," said Maj. Gen. Burton Patrick, base commander. "But then, by some quirk of fate, their plane falls out of the sky and kills them all."The soldiers had survived the most dangerous part of duty.

"This is the deepest, most heartfelt tragedy of my time in the Army," he added.

Heavy clouds blanketed the skies today. A light mist fell, making Christmas decorations around the base look out of place. A sign at the Wilson Theatre advertised a Christmas concert tonight by the division band. Army officials decided not to cancel it but to dedicate the occasion to the dead.

"It's bad anytime something like this happens," Woodruff said. "But it is especially bad at Christmas. They had been gone five months and their families were expecting them for the holiday."

The Army kept reporters from the areas where family members had gathered. Spokesmen said families were told only that their loved ones had been aboard the plane. Official notification would not take place until bodies were identified.

Other soldiers said there had been surprisingly little discussion about the tragedy. "Everyone is keeping quiet," said Sgt. George Walker. "It's something you don't like to talk about."

But flags were dropped to half mast for miles. At Vacation Motor Hotel in nearby Clarksville, Tenn., the marquee said, "God Bless the families of our heroes."

"It's a blow," said bartender Charles Keesee, who retired after 27 years in the Army. "You see a lot of death in the military , but in peacetime it is shocking."

The doors were locked at the Showdown Saloon, not far away. Outside, the janitor said its owner, Susan Pak, had received a phone call at 4:30 p.m. that her husband had been aboard the plane.

"It's pretty bad," he said. "I can hardly believe it."

Base officials were planning a memorial service early next week.