Freed POWs Heading Straight To U.S.

.S. Army Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, left, Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, center, of Almagordo, N.M., and Army Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan., all of the 507th Maintenance Company, and who have been held as POW's by Iraqi forces since March 23 when their convoy was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, are escorted on to a waiting C-130 transport plane, Sunday, April 13, 2003, 60 miles south of Baghdad. AP

Although some were wounded or, after their captures, beaten, all seven rescued American prisoners of war are in good enough condition to be on their way home to the U.S. without a stopover at the military hospital in Germany.

More details of their rescue surfaced Monday.

Marines kicked in a door in Samarra, Iraq, Sunday and shouted: "If you're an American, stand up!"

"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.

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.

"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."

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

Back in the States, Athol Riley of Pennsauken, N.J., said he spoke to his son Sunday.

"They'd taken his driver's license, his Mac [ATM] card, and his checkbook," he told CBS News Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith Monday. "So we get his bank statement and he said make sure there's nothing drawn out in Baghdad.

"He's very tight-fisted with his money."

Shoshana Johnson's best friend Theresa Rowland was there when the family got the news, and even Johnson's two-year-old daughter was excited.

"Yesterday it just seemed that her little mind sensed something was going on," she told CBS News Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler. "Something was going on. And I think in her little 2-year-old mind she knew it had to do with Mommy."

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 Nasariyah and drove into an ambush March 23. Nine other Americans were killed.

"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."

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

Miller said Nasariyah 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. 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."

Johnson, a single mother, 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."

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.

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. One of the POWs reached through a crack and unlatched his cell door. But their guards prevented them 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. With each move, their conditions eased somewhat. They ended up in the hands of some Iraqi policemen who pooled their own money to buy the prisoners food and medicine.

As the Americans troops advanced, "we could feel that the whole thing was collapsing," Young said. "We were the bastard children of Iraq. Nobody wanted to hold us."

Then, on Sunday, the Marines broke down the door.

When Johnson realized she would see her daughter again, she broke down: "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going home!'"
  • Jaime Holguin

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