They took the wrong turn just after dawn on a clear Sunday morning, March 23. The convoy from the Army's 507th Maintenance Company wandered by mistake into the riverfront city of Nasiriyah and suddenly it seemed to the soldiers that every Iraqi in town was trying to kill them.
"We got turned around and then lost and we rolled into Nasiriyah before it was secure and when we rolled in there was an ambush waiting for us," recalled Spec. Shoshana Johnson, 30, from El Paso.
The bullets and explosions came from all sides. Some of the vehicles flipped over. Other drivers hit the gas hoping to outrun the danger, but ran into even heavier fire. In the swirling dust, soldiers' rifles jammed. Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, from suburban Wichita, began shoving rounds into his rifle one at a time, firing single shots at enemies swarming all around.
Some Americans died where they fell. Johnson was shot with a single bullet that sliced through both feet. Spec. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Tex., was hit in the biceps of his right arm. Spec. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M., was shot three times, twice in the ribs and once in the upper left buttocks.
Finally, it fell to Sgt. James Riley, a 31-year-old bachelor from Pennsauken, N.J., and the senior soldier present, to surrender. "We were like Custer," he recalled today, still sounding shocked. "We were surrounded. We had no working weapons. We couldn't even make a bayonet charge -- we would have been mowed down. We didn't have a choice, sir."
The battle lasted about 15 minutes. Nine U.S. soldiers were dead; four were rescued the same day by U.S. forces; six were captured by the Iraqis. One of them, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, would be rescued from a local hospital on April 2. Five others -- Johnson, Hernandez, Hudson, Riley and Miller -- became prisoners of war until this morning, when they were found, along with two captured crew members of an AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter, by U.S. Marines in a house north of Baghdad.
In their first interviews after being freed, all seven former prisoners described a harrowing journey through the Iraq war -- from their ill-fated missions and capture through an arduous imprisonment where death often seemed around the corner. Speaking to two American reporters aboard a C-130 Hercules transport plane evacuating them from Iraq, they alternated between tears and smiles and hollow gazes as they told their stories.
The capture of the Americans came within a 24-hour period that was the darkest of the war for U.S. commanders. Even as U.S. forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein and seized Baghdad, the search for the prisoners consumed top U.S. officers. Their fates were a mystery until this morning.
The cooks, supply clerks and mechanics of the 507th Maintenance Company were unlikely early casualties of the war. Their overnight trip into Iraq was supposed to be a support mission to help other troops who were doing the actual fighting.
The 507th convoy snaked its way from Kuwait across the southern edge of Iraq and up the road toward Baghdad just three days after the Marines had first stormed across the border. The young war seemed to be going better than expected and few thought the trip through the desert could turn into such a high-risk venture.
Members of the convoy still can't understand how they ventured by mistake into Nasiriyah. Marine combat units were trying to seize two bridges on the eastern side of the city about 100 miles north of the Kuwaiti border to secure a crucial crossing of the Euphrates River, but they had not cleaned out the city itself and would run into their own bloody firefights that same day.
The brunt of the city's defense was directed at the members of the 507th.
"It wasn't a small ambush," Riley said today. "It was a whole city. And we were getting shot from all different directions as we were going down the road -- front, rear, left, right."
At one point, Riley called out to a wounded comrade but got no reply and could not help as bullets rained past. "There was nowhere to go," he said.
"It was like something you'd see in a movie," said Miller, the private first class who tried to place rounds one by one into the chamber of his rifle after it jammed.
Outgunned and surrounded, the surviving soldiers threw down their weapons and raised their hands. Iraqi fighters thronged around them, pushing them down, kicking and beating some of them. Miller recalled being hit in the back with sticks. They were bound and blindfolded. Other Iraqis ransacked the stricken vehicles, stripping them of bags and equipment.
Johnson, injured in both feet, could not walk and had to be helped. The first Iraqis who reached her began grabbing at her nuclear, biological and chemical protection garments. "They opened my NBC suit and noticed I was a female," she said. At that point, she said, they treated her more gently than her colleagues.
Miller, though, held out little hope for mercy. "I thought they were going to kill me," he said. "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."
Imprisonment and Interrogation
The prisoners were taken to Baghdad, where they were isolated in separate cells of a drab prison with concrete walls and a tin roof. They did not know what had happened to the rest of their unit, including Lynch, who for some reason was separated from the other soldiers and taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah. Lynch's captured comrades learned only today that she had survived.
Soon after arriving in the capital, the interrogations began. Sometimes they were blindfolded during the questioning; other times, when the video camera was on, they were not. Hudson remembered being surprised that the inquisitors feigned friendliness, sitting back and smoking cigarettes and sipping bottled water instead of shining bright lights in their eyes and shouting. The questions ranged from the disposition of U.S. military units to political diatribes.
"Why did you come to Iraq?" Hudson recalled the interrogators asking. "Why are you killing women and children?" They quickly tired of his responses, he said. "Most of the answers were, 'Following orders,' and, 'I don't know.' "
The captives were all stripped of their clothing and belongings and ordered to wear grungy, unwashed blue or yellow striped prison pajamas. Hernandez had his girlfriend's headband taken from his wrist. Two or three times a day they were given water or tea and bowls of rice, some pita bread and sometimes chicken. They slept on concrete floors with wool blankets and were not allowed outside to see the sun or to exercise or shower. The guards were at first cruel and menacing, but the physical abuse largely subsided, the prisoners recalled.
The soldiers with gunshot wounds underwent surgery. "More than once, a doctor said that they wanted to take good care of me to show that the Iraqi people had humanity," Johnson said. Asked what she thought of that now, she said: "I appreciate the care that I was given. But I also know that there was a reason behind it. They didn't give me care just for the humanity of it."
Two New Prisoners Arrive
Within a day or two of their imprisonment, two more American soldiers arrived, chief warrant officers David Williams and Ronald Young, pilots of an Apache shot down in central Iraq and then captured by farmers early in the morning of March 24. The prisoners from the convoy did not know who the newcomers were at first but could tell by the voices coming from the other cells that they were Americans.
Williams and Young had been part of the first deep-strike attack by the Apaches during the war, a disastrous outing in which not only was their chopper knocked out of the sky, but 33 others were riddled with bullets and forced to return to base for repairs. The two pilots survived the crash and ambled out of the wrecked gunship, hoping to radio for pickup by some of their compatriots. But armed Iraqis quickly rushed toward the crash site and they ran off.
"I looked back at the aircraft and I saw flashlights all over it," said Williams, 31, father of two young children in Fort Hood, Tex. So he and Young, 26, an Atlanta native with a 9-month-old son, jumped into a canal and swam a quarter-mile, trying to glide along quietly with just their heads above the surface. As they moved downstream, they saw another Apache overhead and tried to radio for help, but the helicopter's belly was on fire and the Apache did not stop.
Afraid of hypothermia, Young and Williams emerged from the water at an open plain and made a break for a line of trees about a thousand yards in the distance. But the moon had appeared and farmers armed with rifles spotted them. After warning shots were fired, the two pilots surrendered. "They beat us a little," Williams said. "One of them had a stick. Ron they kicked and beat. They took a knife and put it to my throat."
The farmers tied their hands and blindfolded them, dumped them into a truck and set off for the nearest police station or army base almost as if on parade. Every once in a while, they threw open the door of the truck to display their prize, Williams said. "They would stop and show all these people they had caught Americans."
Night after night from their cold cells, the prisoners could hear the bombing as their compatriots pummeled Hussein and his government from above. The prisoners found themselves wishing U.S. troops would come and worrying about what would happen when they did.
To make matters worse, they said, the Iraqis moved an artillery gun inside the prison into a nearby room at night, in effect making it a target for U.S. bombs. Now the senior soldier in the group, Williams demanded they be moved to a safer location but was rebuffed. The bombs kept seeming to get closer. "At times we could hear the shell casings from the A-10s landing on the buildings we were in," Riley said.
"It busted open my door one night," Young said of the bombing. "I put my hand out and started to open the door but before we could get out the guards came in." In a way, he concluded, it may have been for the best. Had the captives made it past the reasonably disciplined military men holding them, they would have found themselves unarmed on the hostile, war-torn streets of Baghdad. "We had a lot of Republican Guard around us. If we had made it outside, we could have been killed."
Eventually, one night, the prison was rattled by a powerful explosion about 50 yards from the building. The next morning, after 12 to 15 days at the prison, the Americans were bound and moved to another location, the first of what would be many moves.
For the rest of their captivity, as U.S. forces advanced on Baghdad, the prisoners would be moved every few nights. Each jailer seemed desperate to pass off the captives to someone else for fear of the consequences of being discovered by the approaching U.S. troops. The former prisoners said that all told, they stayed at seven or eight places, sometimes government buildings, sometimes private residences.
"We could feel that the whole thing was collapsing," Young said. "We were the bastard children of Iraq. Nobody wanted to hold us."
Some of their captors tried to taunt them. They told Johnson that they had seen her mother on television. They told Hudson the same.
But with each move, the prisoners said, their conditions eased somewhat. They had more opportunities to be together in the same room. Their guards seemed less beholden to the Hussein regime and more sympathetic to their plight. At their final stop, a house near the town of Samarra north of Baghdad, the lower-level guards were police officers rather than Hussein loyalists and they even pooled their own money to buy the Americans food and medicine.
Still, for some of the prisoners, these were among the gloomiest days. As they heard less fighting, Johnson worried that they would never be found by the U.S. troops and that their Iraqi captors would decide to dispose of them.
"I was getting to the point," she said, "where I believed they would have killed us."
Deliverance came loudly and without warning. Suddenly today at the house in Samarra the prisoners heard someone kicking in the doors and shouting: "Get down! Get down!"
"I was sitting there," Miller recalled a few hours later. "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."
By this time, the male prisoners had grown light beards and their shoulders had sagged; in their Iraqi prison pajamas, they could be mistaken for the other side. The Marines had trouble distinguishing Johnson as an American. "At first," she said, "they didn't realize I was American. They said, 'Get down, get down,' and one of them said, 'No, she's American.' "
Johnson, mother of a girl named Janelle who turns 3 next month, was overwhelmed to realize she was saved and would see her daughter again. "I broke down. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going home!' "
The Marines, from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, had been powering up the road toward Tikrit, Hussein's home town, to eliminate any last remnants of his rule when they were tipped off to the presence of the prisoners in town. Senior officers said some of the Iraqi guards themselves approached the Marines; however, one of the Marines who participated in the raid said they heard from a civilian.
The Americans were whisked from the building and into a helicopter within three minutes, meeting no resistance from the remaining guards. They were flown to the Numaniyah airfield southeast of Baghdad and then put on a C-130 to Kuwait. Just hours after their release, they seemed in a state of shock, still absorbing the fact that their 21-day ordeal had ended.
"We weren't POWs very long," Young noted. "I don't know how the guys in Vietnam made it. I wouldn't have made it."