In The Hands Of The Enemy

Dan Rather Interviews Ronald Young Jr. And David S. Williams

When their Apache went down, Young and Williams ran for their lives. But their luck ran out, and they found themselves surrounded by Iraqis who were armed to the teeth -- and angry.

"You know they're yelling in Arabic and we're just sitting there with our arms straight out and they yell at us," remembers Young.

"And I'm like, well I guess we need to get up on our knees. So we get up on our knees with our hands behind our heads. And they start yelling louder. So we got back on our knees and then I was like, well, maybe we need to stand up. So we stood up and one of them shot at me. Right past my head. And we hit the ground. We didn't move after that."

Young says the gunman fired from about 15 feet away, and he could feel the bullet go past him. "It was from some old Chechen muzzle loader or something. I mean a barbaric gun." After that, "we got on the ground and pretty much started praying out loud to God at this point."

There were prayers aplenty in the next three weeks, prayers that helped them in their first few moments of captivity, when the beatings began.

Williams remembers, "The guy came over to me, hit me in the back, lower back with a stick. And the guy with the AK was standing next to Ron. It was like they were angry or taking their aggression out on us."

He says he was struck on the back of the neck and back of the head. He was kicked a couple of times in the ribs, and in the leg. He says he was hit "just everywhere really."

Did he think he was going to die right there in the dirt, in the mud beside the lake?

"I was terrified," Williams says. "All I could do was pray to myself, 'Please let me just survive this.' At least to get to somewhere where it's more organized. With nobody watching, they could have done anything they wanted to us."

The two were tied up and put on a road that led into town. A growing crowd trailed behind, kicking them, hitting them, hurting them.

Young says, "As they're dragging us up the road, this guy keeps slapping me across the back of the head with a stick. And some guy'll walk over and just whop me one good time. Your hands are behind your back. There's nothing you can do. They're just waling."

They were taken inside a house, says Williams, and searched thoroughly: "They took everything. Our watches, rings, our money, ID cards, all our survival equipment. Everything except our flight suits, which we were wearing, and our boots."


By the next morning, Iraqi TV was airing images of the downed Apache, surrounded by chanting crowds. A farmer bragged to the cameras that he had shot the chopper down. The pilots' helmets, gear and papers were examined by the crowd as though they had fallen to Earth from outer space.

The pilots were in the city of Karbala, being questioned for hours. Young says they were inside the police station, which is where the video of the two was shot. It was the world's first glimpse of the pilots as prisoners.

"I assume this is for their propaganda of how humane they are," says Williams.

The Pentagon released the barest facts about them. David Williams, 30, married with two children. Ronald Young, 26, born and raised in Georgia.

The men looked angry and afraid, and their friends and fellow pilots found the images painful.

"I remember hearing about them being displayed on TV and I was angry," says Stauffer. "I remember welling up when they described how they looked on TV. Like Dave was quite serious. And Ron looked pissed off. That made me so happy because I knew what was going through Ron's head, because I know those two."

The other pilots were sent on an emotional roller coaster when they saw the video. Pilot Joe Goode said his feelings were decidedly mixed. "You're happy to see they're alive," he explains. "You're worried whether or not they're going to be treated the right way, just concerned over all. I guess just the biggest thing is just hope that they would make it home."

Goode had flown that night with Cynthia Rosel. She says that seeing her fellow pilots imprisoned made her feel guilty.

"The thing that bothered me the most is that Joe and I were circling that area," says Rosel. "We were taking fire, but I didn't know they were down there. If I would have known, I would have tried. I felt like we left those guys down there."

The men and women of the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment did what they could. They kept their friends' gear out and ready. Some grew moustaches that wouldn't be shaved until the pilots came home. At the front, they all wore memorial headbands.

McElhiney says he wore a headband with the pilots' names on the back every day in the combat area.

"We set up their cots in their normal spot," recalls Polidore. "Ron had his guitar he loves. We put the guitar on his cot."

"Everybody wanted their cot next to them. Everybody wanted a piece of them," adds Stauffer.

Ironically, it was the American military that came closest to killing Williams and Young.

After the men were questioned for two days in Karbala, they were driven in separate vehicles to Baghdad. Young says they drove in a Forerunner type of SUV, with armed guards on either side. He says he was told they were going to Baghdad.

During the heavy American bombing, the two men were moved into a poorly-designed prison with thick walls. It was deteriorating and had a frighteningly thin roof.

"This prison had a tin roof on it," says Williams. "A tin roof."

For 11 days and nights, they listened to the bombing of Baghdad, shouting to each other through the walls.

Young says, "I actually yelled to Dave one day during a bad bomb. I told him the Iraqis were mostly harmless. That it was the bombs that were gonna kill us."

Williams explains, "I have always bragged about how strong we are as a country, America's might. And there I was on the receiving end of it. And we were. And it was terrifying.

"I remember laying on the floor under this wool blanket they had given us. And it was like watching an earthquake, like something on TV. The door was moving."

Young describes, "Three foot thick walls, shaking like trees in the wind."

Amid the constant explosions and the steady fear, the men made an astonishing discovery: They were not the only Americans enduring the bombing of Baghdad locked behind prison walls.

Young says, "The first person I saw in that prison was Shoshana, that I realized was an American." He's referring to former POW Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who was taken prisoner with four other soldiers when their supply convoy was ambushed near Nasariyah.

"I saw her limping by," he says, "and that's when I knew that we had people in there. And I could hear them talking about some of the wounds they had. And I realized that we're in here with other Americans and some of them had been shot."

The prisoners, all of whom had been displayed in terrifying snippets on Iraqi TV, were kept isolated from each other.

Were they mistreated in any way? Yes, says Williams.

"Did they give us water, rice and bread?" he asks. "Yes. Were they humane? Maybe. Did they follow the Geneva Convention? No they did not. They said continuously, 'No, you kill our women and children. That is not Geneva Convention.'"

They asked to see the other prisoners, to see that they were getting medical attention. But all requests were refused.

When the bombs were fierce, the Americans shouted encouragement to each other from cell to cell.

"First time, I guess it was just nervousness, I gave them a big whooooo-hooooo," Young recalls with a laugh. "Some more bombs hit and I got up and said, 'You know this crap ain't funny anymore.'"

Williams says he told one of the guards, "You need to take us somewhere safer. This is not a safe place. And he said 'No, very strong' and I said, 'This is not strong.' But they had no idea what our capabilities are."

Williams and Young say all the prisoners drew strength from the power of the American military. They silently celebrated when they heard American tanks roar through the capital.

"I listened to the war going on all day," Young says. "I mean, because it's right outside the door pretty much. And that was probably the best thing for me, is to hear the tanks rolling through and all the rounds going off. Because I just knew that we were kicking their butt. And that brought me a lot of joy throughout the day. The guards would open a peephole in my door when the bombing would get really loud, just to see what we were doing in our cells. And I would pull my head out from under the blanket and smile at them. Getting inside their head."


Before long, American troops were streaming into Baghdad. But by the time the statue of Saddam hit the ground on April 9, the prisoners were gone.

Guards had rushed them out of the prison and begun driving them from place to place -- with what the prisoners feared was a sinister purpose.

Young says he had the feeling that "they wanted us to be bombed. They would drag us around the city and put us in pretty dangerous spots."

They'd be left overnight, Williams adds, "hoping that the Americans would actually hit us with a bomb."

After the fall of Baghdad, amid the jubilation and looting, the guards watching the seven POWs found themselves without any takers.

"It's sort of like they didn't want to be caught with us when the music stopped," says Williams. "And people were reluctant to take custody of us."

"They would drive up to people's houses and ask them if they could keep us there," says Young. "And the people would tell them no."

Eventually, the constant movement and the chaos that overwhelmed Iraq nearly cost all seven prisoners their lives.

Part I: Former POWs Tell Their Story

Part III: The Rescue



  • Rebecca Leung

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