ABOARD USS NICHOLAS, PERSIAN GULF -- When crewmen of the Nicholas, a Navy guided-missile frigate, took 23 prisoners of war last week after clearing 11 Iraqi oil platforms, they discovered something they had not expected to find: the POWS were not very different from Americans.

"I had an image of fierce, ruthless fighters, but, really, these men weren't different from you or me," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Walter Westin, 28, of Richmond, Va. "When I started working with the first prisoner, I saw the fear in his eyes and saw him shaking. I think I would have had the same fear if I was in his situation."

Westin continued: "Here's the enemy, but for me, at that time, it wasn't. It was a life."

Westin, one of the first people the Iraqis saw when they reached the Nicholas, drew on his Coast Guard experience in arresting suspected drug smugglers in the Caribbean. But never before, he said, had he encountered so much fright in people in his charge. "I think these guys fully expected to be tortured and killed."

Navy Cmdr. Dennis G. Morral, the captain of the Nicholas, said most of the POWs appeared to be hastily drafted reservists who were forced to sit on the platforms without adequate food or supplies. "I don't think that they wanted to fight," he said. "I don't think that they know how to fight. I think that they were very relieved that we were rescuing them."

One prisoner, Morral said, even "tried to kiss" one of his Navy captors -- a friendly embrace which the U.S. military man rebuffed.

Cmdr. Robert Colligan, 31, of Ville Platte, La., the ship's doctor, said he treated five patients with significant injuries, including a couple of men who were near death. Virtually all seemed to be "inadequately clothed, inadequately fed," he said.

Cmdr. Morral said the troops were given warm clothes while their own garments were washed and dried. On leaving the boat, they got their old clothes back, freshly cleaned.

Petty Officer Anthony Williams, 22, of Barnwell, S.C., suddenly found himself cooking for 23 guests. "They ate the same as the rest of the crew," he said. "Beef stew, beef and pepper sandwiches, carrots and corn."

Lt. Cmdr. Bob Cullinan, the ship's executive officer, said the prisoners eyed the meatloaf suspiciously and many declined to eat it. "I think they were trying to figure out what it was. We know that they don't eat pork."