ABOARD A C-130 OVER IRAQ – Sunday, on her 21st day as an Iraqi prisoner of war, Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson thought that she and six other American prisoners of war would be killed because their guards were afraid of the ever-approaching American attacks.
“We were a hot potato,” said Johnson, 30, an Army cook. “It was getting to the point where I believed they were going to kill us.”
Instead, a squad of Marines stormed in, rescuing the last Americans known as being captured by Iraq.A few hours later, the POWs were telling of their ordeal: of being overwhelmed by Iraqis in a firefight where their weapons jammed from the sand. One of the POWs said villagers had held a knife to his throat and had beaten him and a fellow captive with sticks.
“I was asking them if they were gonna kill me,” said Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan.
His guards assured him they would not, Miller added, “but I still didn’t believe them, so I kept asking.”
“I thought I would never see my wife again,” said a sobbing Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, of Orlando.
The POWs, some still wearing striped pajamas issued by their captors, were flown by C-130 transport to Kuwait for medical checkups. Aboard the plane were a nurse, a variety of military officers and photographers, and two reporters who’d hitched a ride from a U.S. air base southwest of Baghdad.
Johnson limped from bullet wounds in both her ankles, Spc. Joseph Hudson had gunshot wounds to the buttocks and side, and Spc. Edgar Hernandez was wounded in the right arm, but all walked on and off the plane and seemed in good spirits, if unshaven and bedraggled and not a little shocked.
“All the words in the world can’t explain how I feel,” Hernandez, 21, from Mission, Texas, said during the one-hour flight to Kuwait.
Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the POWs were rescued after some of their guards approached Marines near the town of Samara north of Baghdad. The guards told the Marines their officers had deserted and they wanted to hand over the Americans. Five of the POWs were members of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company’s “Lost Patrol,” a lightly guarded supply convoy that got lost and wandered into an ambush in the south central Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on March 23, the first Sunday of the war. Nine soldiers were killed and six were captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was rescued last week.
Two of the POWs were aboard an Apache attack helicopter when it went down over southeastern Baghdad on that same day.
Both groups recounted their captures in harrowing detail.
The ambush of the 507th lasted about 15 minutes, just as the sun was coming up over the horizon.
“It wasn’t a little ambush. It was a whole city and we were shot from front, rear, left,” along a one- or two-mile stretch of highway with wide aprons to the side, said Sgt. James Riley, a lanky 31-year-old from Pennsauken, N.J. “It was like being in the middle of a parking lot and everyone is shooting at you.”
Johnson, from El Paso, Texas, dove under her truck but was hit in the ankles. Near her were Riley, Hernandez and Hudson. The rest of the convoy was scattered all along the highway.
“We were spread out all over hell and creation,” said Riley, adding that their weapons began jamming from the sand they had kicked up on their way from Kuwait.
Miller said he fired three shots from his M-16 automatic rifle before it jammed. Then he manually put in another five or so shots, ramming the bolt home with the palm of his hand until he “realized it was useless. I realized there were too many of them.”