NORFOLK, AUG. 15 -- No war has been declared, but on Pier 7 you'd never know it.

As the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy lumbered out of port and anxious wives, sisters and parents waved goodbye this morning, the thought of war was never far away.

Even though Navy brass keep repeating that there's no declared war against Iraq, for all but official purposes, Norfolk and the many other defense installations in surrounding Hampton Roads are on a war footing.

While there were few tears and no hysterics on Pier 7, pensive sailors and families were unsettled by the uncertainty of what may come next.

"You never know what the outcome is going to be," said Angela Bland, whose 20-year-old brother, John Robert Bland Jr., is a petty officer aboard the Kennedy. "We're just praying for the best."

Never before -- not even during the Vietnam War -- has Norfolk, the world's largest naval base, launched so many ships in such a short time, officials said.

The Kennedy, the missile cruiser USS Thomas S. Gates and two amphibious ships, the USS Shreveport and USS Spartanburg County, set sail from here today. Before the mobilization is over, 19 ships will have left port in less than a week.

Shore crews have been working 16-hour days since Friday to prepare a powerful fleet for duty in the Middle East almost overnight. Helicopters fly overhead, trucks stream onto the piers, sailors who just arrived in port last week kiss their families goodbye again.

In the past five days, some 500 tons of weapons and other equipment have been loaded onto warships and 5,000 crane-loads of food and other supplies were stored on the Kennedy alone.

"The buildup took place over a longer period of time" in Vietnam, Capt. Raymond P. Conrad, the naval base's commander, said in an interview today. "Here we're seeing staging of troops and ships and aircraft . . . much more quickly."

In all likelihood, none of the ships leaving Norfolk will arrive in the Middle East for weeks. Led by the USS Nassau, 13 amphibious ships -- including the Shreveport and Spartanburg -- will pick up Marines from Morehead City, N.C., before heading across the Atlantic.

The Kennedy's battle group of three cruisers -- the Gates, USS Mississippi and USS San Jacinto -- and the combat stores ship USS Sylvania will hook up with three ships from other ports. They will either relieve the Norfolk-based USS Eisenhower battle group in the Red Sea or add to the existing fleet surrounding the Arabian peninsula.

As the warships steamed off, relatives left behind tried to keep a stiff upper lip.

As her husband, sonar technician Jeff Taylor, blew her kisses from the deck of the Gates, Marge Taylor aimed a video camera as if she was recording a birthday party. "Smile, guys!" she yelled to the sailors in dress whites and standing in formation. "Don't look so gloomy!"

Her husband had just arrived back in town last week and the two were preparing to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary together on Aug. 27. But then the orders came.

From the deck, Jeff Taylor yelled goodbyes to his two sons, 6-year-old James and 16-month-old Jeremy.

"Take care of Mommy, okay?" he instructed James. "Okay," the fidgety youngster answered.

At the end of the pier, Gabriele and Thomas Szilagyi both tried to control their tears. They tried even harder to believe that their 22-year-old son, Ensign Steven M. Szilagyi, will be safe. When Steven got his orders for his first overseas mission, his parents flew from Long Island, N.Y., to see him off.

"We will always see him go off," said his father, blowing his nose and wiping his eyes.

"And we will always see him come back," his mother added firmly.

From the loudspeaker, Capt. Henry C. Giffin III offered shorebound relatives some reassurance. "We'll take care of them, don't you worry," he said. "We'll see you soon."

Given the large size of the crews, particularly the 5,500-man Kennedy, there weren't many relatives on hand for today's departures. That is a sign, according to people here who often have watched ships leave, that some families were finding the sudden missions difficult to cope with.

For others, any anxieties were beneath the surface.

"Surprisingly, there's not much difference in the feelings of a normal deployment," said Navy chaplain Tom Johnson. "I think it's going to hit them in about a week, when they drive by the pier and they don't see {the ship} here."

Julie Crouch came to see the ship off.

Three weeks ago, she and Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Crouch took their wedding vows. But there hasn't been much of a honeymoon.

Originally from Indiana, Julie Crouch, 20, had just moved to Norfolk when her husband, 32, got his orders to leave with the Kennedy.

"It just doesn't seem real," she said at the pier as her husband waved. "The marriage just started. It's just sinking in that I'm Mrs. Crouch. It's all happening so fast."

She first met Crouch when he was a police officer and pulled her over for speeding. Three years later they began dating, but when he talked about joining the Navy, she told him the day he enlisted would be the day their relationship ended. She thought she couldn't handle being a Navy wife.

Before he left, she renewed her pledge. "I made a vow to you, 'for richer or poorer, better or worse,' " she recalled telling him. Today, she laughed bravely at the words.

"This is probably 'worse,' " she decided.