The Marines were told to look for House 13. Inside they hoped would be U.S. soldiers captured by the Iraqis. As they made their way through a dusty warren of two-story mud-colored hutches in the Iraqi town of Samarra, they found House 11. They found House 12. But no House 13.
What they did see were more and more Iraqis swarming around. First a child who popped around a corner, then two or three men. Soon there were dozens of people staring at them from the streets and the rooftops above them. "Something's not right," Lance Cpl. Curney Russell recalled telling his squad mates.
Some of the Marines began to worry that the tip about U.S. prisoners was a setup for an ambush. "We thought it could be a 'Black Hawk Down' situation," said Russell, recalling the 1993 raid that turned into an ambush in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which militiamen killed 18 U.S. soldiers.
Unable to find the house and leery of a trap, their commander prepared to order them to withdraw. Then a man with a light beard in dingy yellow pajamas peered out from a house, trying to get their attention.
"I'm an American," he called out, quietly but urgently.
So began the rescue of seven U.S. prisoners of war on Sunday, but it almost didn't happen. If Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, the senior officer among the POWs, had not beckoned them, the Marines would have pulled out, two of those involved in the rescue operation said in interviews today.
Their accounts shed new light on how the Marines came to find the only U.S. service members listed by the military as POWs in Iraq when President Saddam Hussein's government was toppled. The liberation of the seven soldiers from the Army's V Corps provided an emotional coda to Hussein's ouster for U.S. military commanders in Iraq. Five of the seven were from the ill-fated 507th Maintenance Company convoy ambushed in the southern city of Nasiriyah on March 23, a detachment that also included Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was rescued separately on April 2. The other two prisoners recovered Sunday were pilots aboard an AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter brought down by a barrage of gunfire early in the morning of March 24.
With no other soldiers believed captured, coalition forces report just two Americans and two British still missing, formally categorized as "duty status whereabouts unknown." British units found two bodies in shallow graves on the Faw peninsula Monday and are trying to identify them, while U.S. forces are examining other remains to determine if they match one of their missing.
From the viewpoint of the Marines, Sunday's rescue mission came together with unusual speed, involved some dicey moments and succeeded in part by chance and with the surprise help of the guards holding the Americans.
The Marines from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion were rolling north out of Baghdad toward Hussein's home town of Tikrit for what they thought would be a final showdown with the deposed leader's loyalists. They had covered about 70 miles and reached the town of Samarra when they got the word.
Local Iraqis approached the Marines, telling them that the seven POWs were being held in town and giving directions where to find them. Russell and his squad leader, Cpl. Christopher Castro, said today they were not sure whether a police officer or a civilian provided the information. But it appeared to come at the behest of the men holding the Americans, because the Marines were told to knock three times first and the guards would open the door with their weapons holstered or on the floor.
A battalion commander summoned the Marines from Delta Company and hurriedly scratched out a map. Delta Company had already experienced fierce combat in the war, and Castro had seen one of the Marines from his squad killed and another shot up badly.
The Marine commander did not want them going into Samarra with guns blazing and warned them not to open fire unless necessary. Two of Delta Company's platoons were ordered to secure the area, while 3rd Platoon would conduct the search with an Arabic-speaking interpreter.
One group of Marines came under sniper fire. The rest of them were on edge. Castro, a 21-year-old squad leader from San Antonio whose ever-present sunglasses had earned him the nickname "Hollywood," kept in mind the two ambushes he had seen earlier in the war. They came upon a small square but none of the houses had the correct Arabic numeral on it.
"At first when we couldn't find it, I thought maybe it was a setup," said Russell, 18, of Manchester, N.H., who was just six days out of infantry school when he was sent to Kuwait last winter. "I saw a guy on the rooftop and said to Corporal Castro, 'Hey, we've got a guy on the rooftop!' All of a sudden I saw 10 or 20 other people coming out on the rooftop."
"That's where the fear factor hit," said Castro. "We were about to pull out." Then Lance Cpl. Aaron Greenleaf heard the POW call out and shouted, "Sir, I can hear them over here!"
Russell was the first to the door. "I ran up, knocked on the door three times -- bang, bang, bang!" he recalled. "They didn't come. My CO [commanding officer] said, 'Kick the door.' "
After Russell smashed it in, the rest of Castro's squad stormed in, shouting, "Get down! Get down!" While Williams evidently saw the Marines outside the house, the other prisoners later recalled that they were stunned when they heard the door broken down. One of the Marines yelled, "If you're American, get up and get out," Castro and Russell said, and they began to separate the seven prisoners from their captors.
The three Iraqis they found in the house had disposed of their weapons. The now-freed POWs intervened on their behalf. "Don't hurt them," pleaded Williams, the senior POW and an Apache pilot, the Marines recalled. "They're our friends. They helped us out."
As the highest-ranking soldier among the seven, Williams had assumed leadership of the beleaguered group, sometimes representing their interests with the captors in trying to improve their conditions. A 31-year-old father of two from Fort Hood, Tex., Williams had been flying the Apache that went down, then ran across fields and swam down a canal before being captured by armed Iraqi farmers who hit him and paraded him up to Baghdad.
In interviews on Sunday as they were being evacuated from Iraq, Williams and other prisoners said that unlike their early jailers, their final captors were compassionate and used their own money to buy them food and medicine. "The biggest thing that I have to say is the last three guys that were holding us captive were the best," Williams said Sunday. "They were police officers, not army. They treated us very well."
The Marines asked if the Iraqi guards wanted to come as well, but they declined, saying the town was their home. The prisoners, weakened by their captivity, seemed almost dazed at what was happening around them. "They were kind of shaken up," Russell said. "They looked a little scared but they were happy to be getting out of there."
With the crowds milling nearby, the Marines wanted to get the POWs out quickly. "All I thought was, 'Let's get the hell out of here before they start firing at us,' " Castro said. He put the freed soldiers in vehicles, helping Spec. Shoshana Johnson, 30, who had been shot in both feet, and sped them out within two or three minutes of bursting into the house.
From there, the prisoners were taken about four miles down the road to a secure area, where two men from an Army "human exploitation team" talked with them for an hour or so while the Marines found fresh clothes for the soldiers, who had worn the same Iraqi pajamas for 21 days.
A CH-46 helicopter arrived within 90 minutes and whisked the seven to the Numaniyah airfield about 80 miles southeast of Baghdad, where they were quickly ushered onto a C-130 Hercules transport plane to Kuwait. Castro and Russell went along with them, sticking close to the prisoners as they escaped Iraqi airspace.
The plane ride proved an emotional roller coaster for the freed prisoners as they absorbed their salvation. Spec. Joseph Hudson, 23, laughed, flashed the thumbs-up sign and proclaimed his everlasting love for the Marines. Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young, 26, excitedly talked with the airmen and fellow prisoners. Sgt. James Riley, 31, Spec. Edgar Hernandez, 21, and Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, sat more quietly. Williams smiled and then became choked up as he recalled thinking that he would never see his wife again. By then, a bond had formed with their rescuers. On hitting the tarmac in Kuwait, Williams implored the Marines not to leave them and they accompanied the soldiers to a medical facility and stayed the night with them.
"They just kept hugging us," said Castro, sounding a little embarrassed.
Riley said during the plane ride to Kuwait that he and his fellow POWs were not heroes but that the men who came to rescue them were. Castro rejected that today.
"All we did was our job," he said. "People have been thanking us every day." Still, he allowed, "It was good to get them out alive."