At first, the freed hostages sat quietly and almost uncomprehendingly on the C9 medical evacuation plane flying them to freedom. Then they began to realize that for the first time in 14 1/2 months they could talk freely among themselves.
"Then we could hardly get them to shut up," said Capt. Thomas M. Gormley, an Air Force flight nurse on the first of two C9 Nightingales.
"This is an American plane. It belongs to the U.S. government," another crew member quoted one of the ex-hostages as saying as he boarded the plane. "I'm really free, really free."
For the 50 men and two women who arrived here early from Algiers, the realization that they were "really free" was difficult to believe. They had been duped so often by their captors, many of them told the medical personnel who flew with them to West Germany, that they thought until the very end that this could be one final, cruel trick.
"Some said, 'I can't believe it. I'm really here,'" said medical technician Sgt. Jerald E. Duffman, who served on the first of the C9s.
Sgt. Charles P. Rigo Jr., who was on the plane behind, said: "Once we got airborne, there were big cheers and their whole personalities, moods and facial expressions seemed to become more normal."
When they were brought to the airport in Tehran, before leaving in an Algerian 727 passenger jet, "they didn't know they were going anywhere, said Capt. Gormley. Well, we're just being moved again," they said they thought, "just more general harassment."
"They said the Iranians told them several days during the last week and over the weekend that they could be released," said nurse Capt. Gretchen L. Malaski. "They told me they made many trips supposedly to the airport only to get to a destination and be told to go back."
"Several said they weren't even sure they were being told the truth on the Algerian plane out of Tehran because they had been moved around so much," recalled Sgt. Rigo. "It was not until they saw the two U.S. planes on the runway as they landed at Algiers that some believed for the frist time that it was the honest-to-God truth and they were free."
Sgt. Duffman said some of the freed hostages "broke into a dead run to the plane in Algiers, "and there was some amazement when they came aboard. They each came to the back of the plane where I was stationed to greet me. They threw their arms around me in a very warm embrace."
"There had to be big adjustments after 14 months of captivity," said Sgt. Rigo. "Suddenly, each of of them could go to the bathroom by themselves without asking permission. Could get his own glass of water or a Coke, could walk around when he wished. It was a big psychological change.
"They had been made totally dependent on their Iranian captors and were cut off from the others, making captivity totally demeaning. On the plane, they compared notes on places they had been kept and what had happened to them."
One group of three or four -- the medics and nurses said it would be improper for them to name the former hostages involved -- was being moved from one location to another in the middle of the night, Rigo said, locked in the back of a van with their hands manacled.
"The driver fell asleep, ran off the road and crashed, totaling the van," Rigo said. "They couldn't do anything to help themselves. They were left there until someone called the police."
The job of the medics and nurses, besides looking after the leased hostages, were to help a State Department team aboard the planes begin the group's transition to freedom. "I was helping make them comfortable and discussing whatever they wanted to," said Rigo. "I was listening to what they had to say about their experiences."
"They were quiet at first," said Gormley, "then they realized they could talk freely for the first time about how they felt. Then we could harldy get them to shut up."
The nurses and medics said the former hostages were "extremely interested" in current events and sports they had missed. Many of the young military men among the freed Americans asked who would be playing in professional football's Super Bowl.
Newspapers and magazines brought along for them were quickly read cover to cover, said Capt. Malaski. "John lennon's death, the summer heat wave -- anything we could tell them about, they dwelled on. There was never a silent moment on our plane. No one slept. No one seemed to sit still for a minute."
"They began asking about the abortive U.S. military attempt to rescue them. They asked how many soldiers were killed," said Rigo, "and they felt really bad about that."
After being informed of the rescue attempt's failure, the hostages received little news about other efforts to free them, Gormley said. "They didn't believe people were so concerned about them. It was as sort of a shock."
The freed hostages were particularly impressed by the boisterous welcome they received from about 10,000 diplomats, servicemen and their families and reporters in the freezing cold just before dawn here yesterday. "There was a nice little ceremony in Algiers."
He noted that one of them, Col. Thomas Schaeffer, the ranking military attache in the seized American embassy in Tehran, was so moved by the homemade banners, cheering children and waving flags that he got back out of the hospital bus on which he had been put after leaving the plane here and went over to the crowd.
"He went around shaking hands and hugging people," Malaski said, "telling them, 'I love you,' and 'You can't believe what this means to me.'"
"They looked really good," Malaski said of the freed hostages. "You could look in their faces and tell they were tired, but they didn't seem to have any serious illness."
Some of the older men pointed to how much weight they had lost, according to the nurses. The medics said that the young Marines ate two turkey dinners each aboard the plane and consumed large quantities of bread, fruit juice and coffee.
"There fitness really surprised me," said Rigo. "They had gone trhough a great deal in the last 14 months. As responsive and active as they were physically, they seemed to be doing fine compared to what we might find.
"They were really, really just jubiliant to be out," said Rigo. "I talked to nearly everybody on our plane and there were really positive feelings about going forward from here. I just hope they can keep it up."