LITTLE ROCK, ARK., OCT. 23 -- Three decades after soldiers turned them away from all-white Central High School, the Little Rock Nine returned in honor today to the now mostly black school known for its academic excellence and remembered their shared battles.

"For us, the bottom line was, every single morning of our lives, for nine months, we got up, we polished our saddle shoes, and we went to war," Melba Pattillo Beals of San Francisco said at a ceremony in Central's library for her and eight other students who spearheaded integration of the school.

"That did not feel good. It did not feel good then, and it does not feel good to think back to it now," Beals said as Gov. Bill Clinton (D) and Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, looked on.

The nine blacks were all good students ranging in age from 15 to 17 when they were selected by the NAACP in 1957 to integrate Central following the U.S. Supreme Court's famed 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which found segregation of the nation's public schools to be unconstitutional.

Then-Gov. Orval E. Faubus told the National Guard to keep the black students out. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to escort them into class, the first time federal troops had been used to enforce desegregation.

Beals, now a talk-show hostess in San Francisco, said she linked arms with Gloria Ray Karlmark as they walked up Central's wide front steps today. "We walked very slow. We could not have walked that slow and lived in 1957," Beals said.

The federal escort stopped at Central's auditorium, where guards were not permitted inside during assemblies. "One day, a guy threw a knife past my head in the auditorium. A teacher told me not to report insignificant incidents," Beals said.

Minniejean Brown Trickey, now a writer who lives in Canada, recalled how in her frustration she once dumped a bowl of chili on a white student. She was later expelled from the school.

"I felt terribly, terribly guilty. I felt that I had let down my friends . . . and I felt that I'd let down the whole civil rights movement," she said.

The others who attended were: Elizabeth Ann Eckford, a social worker in Little Rock; Jefferson A. Thomas, a Defense Department employe in Los Angeles; Thelma Jean Mothershed Wair, a home economics teacher in Belleville, Ill.; Terrence Roberts, a college dean in Pasadena, Calif.; Carlotta Walls Lanier, a real estate broker in Englewood, Colo., and Ernest Green, a senior vice president of Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. in Washington. Karlmark is editor of a computer magazine in the Netherlands.

The nine were hailed by Derrick Noble, president of Central's student government. Noble, 17, said, "I simply want to thank you for all you've done for me as a black student. You've shown us true courage."

The Little Rock School District, now predominantly black due to whites moving to the suburbs, is still in federal court over desegregation. Some of the district's schools are more than 75 percent black, which a judge called unacceptable. The court has appointed a special master to help revamp the district's latest desegregation plan.