Former POW: 'We were like Custer'
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait (CNN) -- Taken prisoner after a disastrous wrong turn and a forced helicopter landing, seven freed U.S. prisoners of war said that death was a constant fear during three harrowing weeks of captivity in Iraq.
On Monday they were safely in Kuwait, hours after U.S. Marines rescued them south of Tikrit.
Five were unlikely POWs, a group of lightly armed mechanics, cooks and clerks that followed, by several days, in the wake of frontline soldiers racing north from Kuwait into Iraq.
But on March 23, when the Army's 507th Maintenance Company convoy rumbled by accident into Nasiriya, swarms of Iraqis in the unsecured city greeted them with a hail of bullets. The soldiers returned fire, but sand picked up from their desert journey soon jammed their rifles.
"It wasn't a small ambush. It was a whole city. And we were getting shot from all different directions as we were going down the road," Sgt. James Riley, 31, told a Washington Post reporter.
After 15 minutes of fighting, which claimed the lives of nine U.S. troops, Riley, the ranking soldier, decided they should surrender.
"We were like Custer. 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," Riley said.
Four members of the "Lost Patrol" were rescued that day. Another, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, was rescued April 2 from a hospital near Baghdad during a daring raid by U.S. Marines and special operation forces.
But Riley and four others were bound, blindfolded and, in some cases, beaten by their Iraqi captors, who also ransacked the 507th's vehicles.
The Iraqis were in for a surprise when they turned their attention to Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, wounded in both ankles from a single bullet.
"They opened my NBC suit [nuclear, biological and chemical protection garment] and noticed I was a female," she said. At that point, they treated her more gently than the others, she told reporter Peter Baker, who spoke with CNN on Monday about the ordeal of the POWs.
Two others were hurt as well -- Spc. Joseph Hudson, 24, in the buttocks and side, Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, in the right arm.
Taken to Baghdad, the wounded were given medical care. The physical abuse subsided, replaced by the mental anguish of frequent interrogations, political diatribes and uncertainty over their fates.
"I thought they were going to kill me," Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, told Baker late Sunday, flying in a military transport plane to Kuwait.
"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."
They were soon joined by two more U.S. soldiers, whose Apache chopper had been shot down in central Iraq on March 24.
Chief warrant officers David Williams, 31, and Ronald Young Jr., 26, ditched the helicopter, dove into a canal and swam about a quarter mile to elude detection.
But in the moonlight, armed farmers spotted the pair and fired warning shots, convincing them to surrender.
"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 seven slept in separate cells on concrete floors, wearing striped prison pajamas underneath wool blankets. Days included meals of chicken, rice and tea.
Danger came in the dark. At night, Iraqi soldiers parked an artillery gun in a cell, making the location a possible target for U.S. airstrikes. Bombs occasionally rattled the prison.
"At times we could hear the shell casings from the A-10s land on the buildings we were in," Riley said.
About two weeks after they were taken into captivity, as the aerial battle for Baghdad intensified, the group began an odyssey that shuttled them repeatedly from government offices to private homes.
Guards were increasingly reluctant to take them, fearing that advancing U.S. troops would find them holding the captives.
"We could feel that the whole thing was collapsing. We were the bastard children of Iraq. Nobody wanted to hold us," Young said.
Eventually they wound up near Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the last stronghold of loyalists to the deposed autocrat.
Marines sent ahead to secure the Baghdad-Tikrit highway met an Iraqi soldier along the way who gave them unusual traffic directions -- where to find the missing U.S. troops.
A Marine battalion stormed the building, surprising the Iraqi guards, who offered no resistance. Their officers had fled and placed them in charge, they said.
Within hours, the seven were on their way to Kuwait inside a C-130 transport plane, the first stop before the United States. Amid sobs, cheers and laughter, they told their stories to two reporters accompanying them on the flight.
"I broke down. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm home,'" Johnson said.