President Reagan paid solemn tribute today to the 248 U.S. soldiers who died in the Newfoundland air crash last week and offered solace to their families, saying, "In life they were our heroes, in death our loved ones, our darlings."

"I know that there are no words that can make your pain less, or make your sorrow less painful. How I wish there were," Reagan told 700 family members and soldiers gathered in Hangar 4 to mourn the lost men and women of the 101st Airborne Division.

"But of one thing we can be sure: as a poet said of other young soldiers in another war, they will never grow old, they will always be young," Reagan said. "And we know one thing with every bit of our thinking -- they are now in the arms of God."

As the president spoke in a low voice, emotional but firm, a small child wailed for a lost father, a mother fingered the framed portrait of her son, and a young widow broke into sobs, clutching snapshots of her late husband, a soldier posing on duty with the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert.

Then the president and First Lady Nancy Reagan personally comforted every family member, moving slowly through the hangar for nearly an hour, Reagan greeting them all with both arms outstretched, signing tributes to the fallen soldiers as the division band played solemn hymns. Mrs. Reagan embraced many of the grief-stricken mourners, a white handkerchief grasped tightly in her hand.

It was a scene of agonizing sorrow that brought tears to soldiers of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" who had come home safely only the week before. Today, they mourned their fallen comrades wearing their tan desert fatigues, some with black armbands, all wearing the distinctive orange patch "Multinational Force and Observers" on one shoulder and the "Screaming Eagle" patch and U.S. flag on the other.

In a ceremony conducted against the backdrop of a mammoth "Screaming Eagle" insignia draped from the hangar ceiling, Maj. Gen. Burton D. Patrick, commander of the 101st, told the families and service personnel:

"As a professional soldier, the only solace that I can take from this tragedy is that if a soldier has to die, it should be in the service of his country, doing a tough and important mission, and it should be with his fellow soldiers. This is how it was."

Retired general William C. Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger attended the ceremony along with other top military officials. The crash of the Arrow Air DC8 charter at Gander, Newfoundland, last Thursday killed 248 members of Task Force 3/502 and eight airline crew members in one of the worst military air accidents in U.S. history. The soldiers were returning from six months of international peacekeeping duty in the Sinai.

"They were full of happiness and laughter as they pushed off from Cairo," Reagan said. "They were happy; they were returning to kith and kin. And then the terrible crash, the flags lowered to half staff and the muffled sobs and we wonder: How could this be? How could it have happened, and why?

"We wonder at the stark tragedy of it all, the enormity of the loss. For lost were not only the 248, but all of the talent, the wisdom and the idealism that they had accumulated; lost too were their experience and their enormous idealism.

"Tragedy is nothing new to mankind, but somehow it's always a surprise, it never loses its power to astonish," Reagan said. "Those of us who did not lose a brother or a son or daughter or friend or father are shaken nonetheless."

At the rear of the hangar, Mary Ellen Kubic held a photo of her son, Mark R. Kubic, 25, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., who died in the crash. "He had been at President Reagan's first inaugural as an honor guard," she said, "and now the president is coming to honor him."