While the question of war in the Persian Gulf moved inexorably from "if" to "when," in their own cities and towns Americans suddenly found themselves on the unfamiliar terrain of the home front.

Here at home, the front lines were being formed by deeply personal battles of conscience and uncertainty. After months of ranting threats and "kick butt" bravado, of diplomacy both orchestrated and desperate, the last official day of peace saw Americans left alone with their private fears of war.Perhaps the most anguished were the parents and spouses of the young men and women in Saudi Arabia.

"I'm just existing and praying very hard," said Lorraine Kuplast of Brockton, Mass., whose son John Jr., 30, is a Marine in the gulf. "I'm really trying to be strong for his wife and children."

In Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday where 33,000 sailors have shipped out for Operation Desert Shield from the nation's largest naval base, 18-year-old Melissa Gald said she barely sleeps she's so worried about her husband, Frank.

Less than three weeks after the Galds' Dec. 8 wedding, Frank left aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. With tears in her eyes, Gald said she prays often "just that he's safe and that he comes home for me."

"I'm petrified - petrified - for my son," said James Healy of Melrose, Mass., whose son James is a Marine stationed in Saudi Arabia. "But here again it was his decision to do this and I honor that decision."

Many turned to prayer for a last-minute miracle of peace or for the safety of their loved ones.

In Texas, church altars were covered with hundreds of photographs of the mostly young men and women in uniform whose lives are at stake.

"A lot of them are kids," the Rev. Arturo Molina of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio said about the faces in the photographs. "That's what makes it hard for us."

The photographs were propped against altars at churches by relatives attending prayer vigils across the state.

"They do it with so much faith, hoping because they place the pictures there they will be protected by God," Molina said. "There's really nothing we can do right now but pray."

Others turned to activism, seeking an eleventh-hour peace through vigils or marches or demonstrations in towns of all sizes around the land.

A 27-hour vigil for peace began at 10 p.m. Monday at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and in Dallas a 24-hour peace fast was under way at the First Methodist Church.

"I lived through Vietnam, and I don't want to do that again," Dallas peace activist Susan Lee said.

In Washington, hundreds of people demonstrated across the street from the White House in Lafayette Square. Many held anti-war signs. Some chanted "Peace Now" to the beat of a drum. Others stood silent and still.

"It definitely looks like there's going to be war," said Kevin Young, 32, a physical therapist. "But there's always a chance something will happen." He handed out a flier announcing a rally at midnight called "Eve of Destruction."