When World War II came along, the Payne boys knew what to do. Thurston and Joseph -- the youngest of the 10 brothers -- enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor. Ackley went into active duty. Everett and Wilmer, who already had served stints in the Army a few years earlier, went next. A year later, their brother Rudolph joined them.

Even in those long-ago times of large families, it was unusual for six siblings to fight in the same war. Even more remarkable, after seeing action on Okinawa and Tulagi, at Guadalcanal and the Battle of the Bulge, the Payne boys all came back home safely to Virginia.

At Quantico National Cemetery tomorrow, Memorial Day, six flags will fly in memory of six of the brothers -- four of the World War II veterans and Carroll and Richard, who served in peacetime.

The flags, the same ones that had draped each man's casket and were presented to the family at their funerals, will be among 450 banners lining the cemetery's Avenue of Honor as the nation pauses for a moment to remember its heroes, even unsung ones like the sons of Thurston and Susie Payne.

Among those paying tribute at Quantico, where Ackley Payne lies buried, will be his brother Rudolph, now 85 and living in Falls Church. Rudolph and Everett, 83, of Manassas, are the only ones still alive.

The Payne brothers didn't consider their wartime service anything special. "We all of us did what we had to do at the time," Rudolph Payne said.

In many ways, they were the quintessential World War II warriors. "Citizen soldiers" is the term historian Stephen Ambrose has given the 16 million American men and women who joined the 1940s war effort. In his bestselling book, TV news anchor Tom Brokaw calls them the "greatest generation."

They left behind families, jobs and schools to go fight an enemy bent on conquering the world. When it was over, their battle won, they quietly returned to civilian life and picked up where they had left off.

The prewar years were tough ones for the Payne family. In 1930, the boys saw their parents' 250-acre farm in Fauquier County auctioned off when they could no longer meet the mortgage. The family moved onto the grounds of an estate in McLean, where their father was caretaker. Even so, times were lean.

Most of the boys -- there were no daughters in the household -- quit school early to help make ends meet. Only Carroll, the oldest, and Joseph, the youngest, finished high school. Rudolph made it as far as seventh grade.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, six of the brothers were of military age, including Rudolph, who had a wife and baby daughter.

Everett went into the Army and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in December 1944. Wilmer, who had served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the late 1930s, went into the Army Air Forces. Ackley served in the 1st Marine Division, which assaulted the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. Joseph and Thurston were both in the Navy in the South Pacific.

Rudolph enlisted in 1944 and wound up in the Marine Corps' 6th Division. On April 1, 1945, he was among the first wave of men to land on Okinawa, where he witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific theater. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, he did a six-month tour in China.

The boys' parents waited out the war in the small house in Manassas that their children had built for them when the couple grew too old to work. Susie Payne kept a quiet vigil. Like wartime mothers everywhere, she placed a blue star in the window for each of her boys overseas.

Six sons. Six blue stars.

A cousin later told Rudolph that his mother also put a small white cross among the stars.

"Each morning, she'd come down and pray that we'd all return," he said, his eyes suddenly filling with tears, his voice cracking.

A mother's prayers were answered: All of Susie Payne's boys came home safely.

Rudolph went back to his mechanic's job at Maloney Concrete in Georgetown, where he spent the next 40 years. Everett became a truck driver, Ackley a tour bus operator. Richard was a meat cutter. Thurston worked for the Manassas Sanitation Department, and Joseph became a D.C. fireman.

In all, the sons had 19 children; there followed 35 grandchildren and dozens of great-grandchildren. The brothers never looked back. They rarely discussed the war, and their parents never asked them what they'd seen and done.

That was the family's way, said Rudolph, recalling that he was an adult before he learned that his grandfather, Zach Royston, had ridden with Mosby's Rangers, the Confederate guerrilla band commanded by John Singleton Mosby, and was wounded at Gettysburg.

"Nobody made a career of it, and nobody bragged about it," Rudolph said. "I don't think my people were impressed with wars. I had a lot of cousins in World War II, and some of my mother's oldest sister's children was in World War I. Some were wounded real severe. But life went on. They never expressed their opinions too much about it. I don't know why."

Ambrose, author of several books about World War II combatants, says that many were uncomfortable boasting of their accomplishments. "They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it," he wrote in "Citizen Soldiers."

"They just didn't talk or write about it."

These days, Rudolph spends his days working with the Disabled American Veterans and restoring antique cars. Maxine, his wife, died in 1983, and he remarried five years ago. His two daughters, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren will carry something of him into the future.

But for a while tomorrow, his thoughts will be on the past. At Quantico, the Marine band will strike up and a bugler will sound taps. From somewhere in the crowd, Rudolph will watch his brothers' flags wafting in the breeze.

Someday, when Everett and Rudolph die, the cemetery will get their flags, too. It's quiet recognition, but it's all that Rudolph desires.

"I don't want any praise for what I did," he said. "My comrades that I went overseas with who didn't come back -- to me, they're the heroes."

CAPTION: Former Marine Rudolph Payne, one of six brothers in World War II, displays medals and insignia in his Falls Church home.

CAPTION: A 1953 family reunion in Warrenton brought Thurston and Susie Payne together with all 10 of their sons. From left, standing, are Joseph, Ackley, Thurston, Wilmer, Everett, Rudolph, Richard, Marshall, Elmer and Carroll.

CAPTION: Rudolph Payne holds model of amphibious vehicle he knew well in the Marines.