American POWs freed

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2003

KUWAIT CITY (AP) -- Captured after a bloody ambush and the downing of a helicopter, seven American POWs were hustled from place to place, their Iraqi captors unsure what to do with them as U.S. forces closed in fast.

''We were a hot potato,'' said Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, a 30-year-old cook from Fort Bliss, Texas. ''It was getting to the point where I believed they were going to kill us.''

Instead, after three weeks in captivity, the seven were rescued Sunday from a house south of Tikrit by Marines who kicked in a door and shouted: ''If you're an American, stand up!''

Email newsletter signup

''We stood up and they hustled us out of there,'' said Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan.

Grungy and bedraggled in their blue- or yellow-striped prison pajamas, they did not know that Baghdad had fallen, that their comrade Pfc. Jessica Lynch had been rescued or that U.S. commandos had been trying to find them for weeks.

There were conflicting reports on how the Marines learned of the prisoners' whereabouts; by some accounts their location was revealed by Iraqi soldiers whose leaders had abandoned them. Some Marines, though, said townspeople tipped them to the house.

The rescued POWS told their story to reporters for The Washington Post and The Miami Herald aboard a plane as they were flown to Kuwait for a medical checkup and a debriefing.

They said they were kicked and beaten when were captured, and were taunted and interrogated by their captors. But they were given medical treatment and did not complain of torture. Nevertheless, some were certain they were going to die.

A sobbing Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., said: ''I thought I would never see my wife again.''

At one point during their captivity, American bombs smashed the bricks of their prison, and one of the POWs reached through a crack and unlatched his cell door. But their guards prevented them escaping.

Five of those rescued were members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company who were captured along with Lynch when they made a wrong turn near the Iraqi city Nasiriyah and drove into an ambush March 23. Nine other Americans were killed.

The two other rescued POWS were the crewmen of an Apache attack helicopter that was downed by cannon fire the next day.

Johnson, a single mother of a 2-year-old, was the only woman among the seven. She had been shot by a bullet that pierced both feet, and Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, had been shot in the elbow, according to Marines who flew them to safety. Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M., had been shot twice in the ribs and once in the buttocks. The others appeared to be unharmed.

The POWs said Iraqi doctors operated on those who had been shot. Johnson said doctors told her ''they wanted to take good care of me to show that the Iraqi people had humanity.''

For members of the 507th, the three-week ordeal began when the maintenance convoy rolled into a 15-minute firefight, where their automatic weapons jammed because of the sand. With bullets and explosions everywhere, Miller began shoving in bullets one by one and firing single shots.

''We were like Custer,'' recalled Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J. As the senior soldier present, it fell to him to surrender. ''We were surrounded. We had no working weapons. We couldn't even make a bayonet charge -- we would have been mowed down.''

Miller said Nasiriyah residents punched him and hit him in the back with sticks. In Johnson's case, though, the Iraqis opened her chemical weapons suit and ''noticed I was a female.'' Then, she said, they treated her very well.

A day later, the Apache was brought down outside Baghdad when a cannon round split the leather of Williams' boot and burned his foot, forcing him to land.

Williams and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young jumped in a canal and swam a quarter-mile but were caught by armed farmers who spotted them in the moonlight when they tried to run for cover in a stand of trees, Williams recalled.

The villagers ''beat us a little, one of them with a stick,'' he said. ''One of them even put a knife to my throat.'' Then the two men were thrown in the back of an open truck and driven around ''to show all the other people that they had captured Americans,'' he said. ''We got a couple of more punches and sticks.''

Shortly after their capture, the seven were shown on Iraq's state-run television.

The two groups of prisoners were brought together about two days after their capture in what they believed was a police station in Baghdad, where they were held for about two weeks.

They were issued prison pajamas and were fed water or tea and rice, some pita bread and sometimes chicken, two or three times a day. They slept under wool blankets on concrete floors, and were not allowed outside. Nor could they exercise or shower.

They were kept in separate cells at first, with no talking allowed. They were interrogated separately, sometimes with blindfolds on, and were asked about such things as the disposition of U.S. military units. They were also subjected to political diatribes.

''Why did you come to Iraq?'' their captors demanded. ''Why are you killing women and children?''

At one point, the Iraqis moved an artillery gun inside the prison -- making it a target. Allied bombing came closer and closer, and one blast opened up a crack in the prison. But the guards prevented the POWs from escaping.

Young said it was probably just as well that they were not able to break out and venture into Baghdad. ''There were a lot of Republican Guard around us,'' he said. ''If we had made it outside, we could have been killed.''

The POWs were moved through six holding places in their last days, according to Johnson.