KUWAIT CITY - Iraqi troops south of Tikrit handed U.S. Marines a stunning surprise Sunday: seven American POWs released in relatively good condition after three weeks of captivity. They said they were treated roughly when captured, but given medical care, and some believed they were doomed.
"I thought they were going to kill me," Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan., told two reporters who interviewed the POWs on a transport plane. "That was the first thing I asked when they captured me: 'Are you going to kill me?' They said no. ... I still didn't believe them."
Freedom brought hugs, applause and slaps on the back from smiling Marines before the seven were flown to Kuwait for a medical checkup and debriefing. Back home, their families and friends burst out in jubilation.
Five of those returned Sunday were members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company that made a wrong turn near the southern Iraqi city Nasiriyah and was ambushed March 23 - the same incident in which rescued POW Pfc. Jessica Lynch was captured.
The other released prisoners were crewmen of an Apache helicopter downed the next day, Chief Warrant Officers Ronald D. Young and David S. Williams.
The two jumped in a canal and swam a quarter-mile to elude capture, but were caught by armed farmers who spotted them in the moonlight when they tried to run for cover in a stand of trees, recalled Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla.
"It's just a good way to start off the morning, to have been notified that seven of our fellow Americans are going to be home here pretty soon in the arms of their loved ones," President Bush said in Washington.
Among the former POWs was Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, a single mother of a 2-year-old. Johnson, the only woman among them, 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.
In interviews with reporters from The Washington Post and The Miami Herald, some of the freed prisoners said they had been kicked and beaten when they were captured.
But they also said Iraqi doctors had performed surgery 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," but she believed they had other motives.
They said their jailers had been cruel at the start, taunting them, and less so as time went on; they were interrogated, but did not complain of torture. As their captivity lengthened, they were often moved from place to place.
They were given 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.
At one point, they said, the Iraqis moved an artillery gun into the prison - making it a target. Allied bombing came closer and closer, and one concussion even broke the door open, but the guards prevented them from escaping.
Apache pilot Young said it was probably just as well that they weren't able to escape their military captors and plunge into the even greater uncertainty of wartorn Baghdad.
"There were a lot of Republican Guard around us," he said. "If we had made it outside, we could have been killed."
They were moved often after that. With each move, the prisoners said, their conditions eased somewhat. Finally, they said, they were guarded by police officers who paid for their food and medicine.
As the Americans troops advanced, "we could feel that the whole thing was collapsing," said Young, 26. "We were the bastard children of Iraq. Nobody wanted to hold us."
Back home, in Lithia Springs, Ga., Young's father watched shaky video footage of the soldiers on CNN. "It's him, and I'm just so happy that I could kiss the world!" said Ronald Young Sr. "It's him! It's definitely him."
For members of the 507th, the three-week saga began when the maintenance convoy took a wrong turn into Nasiriyah and rolled into "an ambush waiting for us," in the words of Johnson. With bullets and explosions everywhere, Miller, his rifle jammed, 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," he said. "We had no working weapons. We couldn't even make a bayonet charge - we would have been mowed down."
Shortly after their capture, the seven had been shown on Iraq's state-run television, giving a human face to the peril confronting American troops.
Nine others of the 507th convoy were killed.
The seven freed Sunday were picked up wearing blue-and-white pajamas, khakis or shorts.
Liberation came without warning.
"I was sitting there," Miller said. "Next thing I know the Marines are kicking in the door, saying get down on the floor. They said, 'If you're an American, stand up.' We stood up and they hustled us out of there."
When Johnson realized she would see her daughter again, she broke down: "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going home!'"
She said her hopes of escape had dwindled as time went on and her worries increased that the Iraqis would decide to dispose of them as the Americans closed in.
"I was getting to the point where I believed they would have killed us," she said.
There were conflicting reports on how the Americans were recovered. By some accounts their location was revealed by Iraqi soldiers whose leaders had abandoned them.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqis told U.S. troops they would find the seven missing soldiers at a location about four or five miles south of Tikrit. "They said, 'You should go get them,' and they did," Rumsfeld said.
During the flight to the airbase near Kut, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Miller came up to where the pilots were sitting.
"He was just grabbing us, telling us that he loved us and hugging the crew chief," said Maj. Chris Charleville, who commanded the operation that transported the POWs from outside Samarra to an airfield south of Baghdad.
Once at the airbase, the seven clambered off the helicopters on their own and walked or limped to a C-130 transport plane that took them to Kuwait.
Marines at the base patted them on the back. When Marine combat headquarters got news that the POWs had been found, the troops applauded.
All seven were released after a medical assessment in Kuwait, said Lt. Col. Ruth Lee, chief nurse at the facility where they were examined. "Their condition is good. I saw nothing that looked abnormal," Lee said.
Lt. Col. Larry Cox, a military spokesman, said the seven would be debriefed in Kuwait, then decisions would be made on a "case-by-case basis" on sending them elsewhere.
Franks underscored his commitment to rescuing coalition captives - but cautioned he didn't think that all could be recovered. Four Americans are still listed as missing in action.
"I don't think we could predict that at all," he told Fox TV. "I think it would be a true blessing if we were able to do that, and I don't think we ... can count on it.
"But I can tell you this," Franks added. "Even though we can't count on it, we can work at them hard. And we have been, and we will."