The television was off at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post as members talked bitterly about the prolonged captivity of Bobby Hall, an Army man from a well-known, well-liked family here.

"We were all depressed," recounted Bob Byrd, a Korean War veteran who helped place yellow ribbons on doors, trees and utility poles, hoping for Hall's release from North Korea before Christmas.When that didn't happen, veterans groups began circulating bumper stickers and fliers demanding: "Free Bobby Hall NOW!"

But about 6 p.m. Thursday, the post commander's wife, Joan Patton, burst in and yelled to turn the TV on. There was news that the United States and North Korea had agreed upon Hall's release.

"This placed was packed, and it just exploded," said Chere Slayton, assistant canteen manager. "I've never seen this many tears. I could have mopped the floor."

At Hall's home, his wife, mother and other relatives clapped and cheered at the news - then wept in each other's arms.

"It don't get any better than this," Bobby Hall Sr. said after his son called from South Korea. He "sounded great . . . tired, upbeat, ready to come home."

"It was a roller coaster. My emotions went up and down and I dealt with them as I needed to," Donna Hall said Friday morning. She credited faith and the outpouring of support from their hometown community for helping her through the ordeal of her husband's captivity.

"Hall is back in American hands," was the message his wife received about 9:20 p.m., said Harvey Perritt, a Pentagon spokesman who talked to reporters outside the family's modest wood-frame home, illuminated by Christmas lights and television crews camped along the family-owned dirt road called Hall Drive.

Chief Warrant Officer Hall walked to freedom 13 days after his helicopter was downed when it strayed into North Korea from South Korea. His co-pilot was killed. Hall was on a flight heading for home Friday.

Friends and family got word of Hall's imminent release late Thursday when President Clinton called the 28-year-old pilot's wife, Donna. Hall's parents, two sons, two sisters and other relatives and friends listened to the roughly five-minute conversation.

"They just got the best Christmas present you could ask for," Perritt said.

More than three hours after Clinton's call, another call from an Army officer confirmed that Hall was back in American hands.

The drama has dominated daily life in this small town of about 7,500 people as residents rallied around the Halls, a family that goes back several generations here.

"There are so many good people doing so many good things," said Mayor John Tucker.

Mrs. Hall and other relatives had stopped talking to reporters this week while sensitive negotiations went on for Hall's release.

Hall's reunion with his family was expected to come Friday evening at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, about 40 miles south of Brooksville.

Soon after the news of the release, neighbors began trickling into the Hall home with hugs and congratulations. Several left with tears streaming down their cheeks. They, too, didn't say much.

"This is their time," said one woman who wouldn't give her name. "We rejoice with them."