DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DEL., DEC. 24 -- Greeted by the mournful sound of the Navy Hymn and salutes from strangers, 20 U.S. sailors completed a long journey home from the Middle East today as their remains were returned to U.S. soil for burial.

The sailors from the USS Saratoga, who represent the largest number of military personnel to die in a single incident since the beginning of Operation Desert Shield, were killed Friday night near the Israeli port of Haifa when a ferry boat capsized and sank as they were riding back from shore leave to the aircraft carrier. A 21st sailor is also believed to have drowned, but his body has not been recovered.

During a brief, solemn ceremony here, broken only by the sounds of the band and a frigid wind, black-and-white-clad Navy pallbearers carried their colleagues' flag-draped coffins two at a time from the belly of the military C-141 cargo plane that had tranported the bodies from Israel.

The coffins passed through an arc formed by 22 members of a Navy honor guard and by a receiving line of saluting officials that included Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III and Chief of Naval Operations Frank B. Kelso II. They were placed in white, silver and black hearses.

The scene was repeated 10 times, the hymn playing over and over, until all the bodies had been carried away. In the only official remarks, Rear Adm. David E. White, the navy's deputy chief of chaplains, said the fallen servicemen "have honored their families" and "demonstrated their fidelity to a nation."

Lt. Beci Brenton, a Navy spokeswoman, said Garrett and Kelso declined to speak at the arrival ceremony, as military officials often do under such circumstances, because they wanted "a very dignified, simple, solemn" service.

"It was a decision made by Navy leadership that there would not be a ceremony. They simply wanted to render honors," Brenton said. She said it is not yet known whether the sailors would be awarded medals for dying during their service.

Two aunts of one sailor, Petty Officer Michael L. Belliveau, 24, of Lakewood, Colo., were the only relatives present to witness the arrival. The government does not pay the travel expenses to Dover for survivors of fallen service members, an Air Force spokesman said.

Many of the sailors' families were attending a memorial service today in Jacksonville, Fla., the Saratoga's home base.

Braving the bitter Christmas Eve cold along with the Navy brass here, however, were about 15 private citizens from Dover and other parts of Delaware. The civilians, mostly relatives of other active U.S. military personnel, said they wanted to show respect for the dead crewmen, who ranged in age from 18 to 35.

"My son has friends on the Saratoga and I wanted to be here to show my concern for him," said Kenneth V. Short of Georgetown, Del., whose 23-year-old son, Kenneth, is in the gulf stationed aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto.

Asked if viewing the funeral procession had affected his view of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Short said no. "I think my son and the rest of them should be over there," he said. "If we don't take care of this Saddam Hussein guy now he could take over the world like another Hitler."

Also on hand for the plane's arrival were members of the Kentucky Air National Guard, who had volunteered to go to Dover to pick up about 60 soldiers from Fort Dix, N.J., just completing their tours of duty in the gulf. The guardsmen stood at attention and saluted each pair of coffins as they passed.

"It's good to know there are some people who are coming home for Christmas," guardsmen K.R. Elgin said of the Fort Dix contingent. "It was worth it coming up here to see this to make sure someone is getting home."

The sailors' bodies were brought to Dover because the base is home to the nation's largest military mortuary. If war breaks out, today's scene will be repeated numerous times.

"We have a macabre history here," said Chief Master Sgt. George Roof as he watched the procession of coffins. "People don't hear of us unless something goes wrong."