Trapped and hiding somewhere inside Kuwait City, Maria Latham's husband, Donald, smuggled out a letter dated Oct. 9 via the Kuwaiti resistance. "Right now I am thinking how nice it would be," he wrote, "to hear you in the kitchen, or have you come into the computer room and see if I wanted a cup of coffee or something. That bed sure gets big when you're not in it with me."

That was a few weeks ago. Two days ago, she received another letter -- dated Oct. 20 and revealing new tensions and fears. "It's funny how things change," Latham wrote. "We would do anything to be able to get out and take a walk, or just a breath of fresh air. ... All of us get depressed at times, but for the main we are coping. ... VOA {Voice of America} says that 66 percent of the people polled say they want a diplomatic rather than a military solution, but in Britain 86 percent of the people favor war to get him {Saddam Hussein} out. Somewhere along the line, the U.S. has lost all their guts, and a good bit of their national soul."

On that same date, Latham penned another letter, a powerful one, to President Bush. Along with a plea "to be freed," it said that Latham's 69-year-old father, Eugene Hughes of Albuquerque, N.M. -- who had the misfortune to be visiting his son at the time of the Iraqi invasion -- was trapped with him. The beta blockers that Hughes takes for his heart condition, his son wrote, were running low. "Have you ever been in the position," he asked the president, "of having to sit helplessly by and fear having to watch your father die?"

Donald and Maria Latham had lived in Kuwait for 10 years at the time of the invasion. He was an electrical engineer for a private American company that for reasons of safety, Maria says, cannot be named. Interviewed by telephone in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she was visiting friends this week, she described a typical expatriate life in the small oil-rich nation -- bridge and poker games, home videos, dinners with Kuwaiti friends and, for her, annual trips home to visit her folks in Holland. They had raised two children in Kuwait, who had earlier returned to the States.

Donald had had a career in the U.S. Air Force, serving two tours in Vietnam and retiring as a tech sergeant in 1978. He worked for a while installing safes in Albuquerque, then landed the engineering job in Kuwait City. It turned out to be a life filled with all the conveniences, even visits to the Safeway for food.

Last summer they invited Donald's parents for a visit. The plan was to tour Kuwait for a week or so, then head off together for a European vacation. Gene Hughes, a retired truck driver, and his wife, Lucille, arrived in the desert kingdom via London on July 27.

"The night we left Albuquerque," recalls Lucille, interviewed by telephone in her home there this week, "the newspaper here had a map of Kuwait and Iraq and they had a green arrow pointing to the border -- Iraqi troops moving south. So I called my son in Kuwait and said, 'Is it still safe to come?' He said, 'I don't know about that, let me call.' So he called the American Embassy and he called military officers he knew at the base, and they said, 'Oh, that has all been settled.' "

When her in-laws arrived, Maria took them sightseeing. The night before the invasion, the two couples had dinner with Kuwaiti friends, and on the way home Donald stopped by his automatic bank teller machine and drew out the maximum amount of cash, thinking ahead to the trip they were to begin on Aug. 6. It was a lucky thing, because a few days after the invasion they were able to buy up $750 worth of groceries.

At 5:30 the next morning -- Aug. 2 -- they awoke to the sound of a plane buzzing the neighborhood. The two couples were trapped. In the days that followed, Donald calmly took charge and organized the gathering of food supplies and other essentials. As so many people did, the Lathams and Hugheses considered escaping in vehicles across the desert to Saudi Arabia, but decided against it because of Gene's heart condition. "We decided to hang in there and hope that the American forces would come and rescue us," Maria said. "My father-in-law said he was making plans to serve them coffee and doughnuts when they arrived."

But no help arrived.

The two women left Kuwait City Sept. 7 aboard an Iraqi Airways plane on one of several repatriation flights allowed by the Iraqi government. They landed in Baghdad and waited in the airport there for another flight to Jordan, and Maria opened a little note that her husband had given her:

"Dear Ria," he wrote, "I love you with all my heart and being. We have had some bad times, but also some very, very good ones. I firmly believe that we will have more of them. This will be a difficult time for us, but we are not alone. God has been taking good care of us so far, and I have no doubt that he will continue in his guidance and protection. This is the time for you to be strong, even more than I need to be."

Returning home, Maria Latham and Lucille Hughes reconnected with their children and grandchildren scattered across the United States. The letters from their men contain increasingly painful and troubling details of their lives in hiding, but so far have given no hint that capture is imminent. The women have even been able to broadcast brief messages to their husbands via the VOA's special message service, and the letters show that these have been heard.

As the women pointed out, however, there is no way of knowing whether -- since those last letters dated Oct. 20 -- Donald and Gene remain at least technically free. Three others -- two Americans and a British citizen -- have joined them in the Latham house. The letters indicate that the men have electricity and food, but that Iraqi soldiers are often so close by that they dare not even show their faces at a window.

"It is very nerve-wracking here now," Hughes wrote Oct. 16. "Troops all over. ... This is the first time in my life I have been caged up and I don't like it. The hardest part is not being with you. ... Saddam says he is not going to pull out and as far as we can tell or hear the sanctions are not working. ... The united forces know that they will have to use force so why not get it over with and get everyone home? Have Robert {a son-in-law} drain the cooler and light the pilot in the furnace."