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Seven Rescued U.S. POWs on Their Way to Kuwait

Aired April 13, 2003 - 09:46   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: The big news of the morning is coming from these pictures you are seeing here. This is the video, exclusively shot here by CNN crews that happened to be there on the tarmac, as seven US POWs have been recovered and are now on their way to Kuwait City, perhaps maybe even landing there as we speak now. This is the process of them being loaded into ambulances and our Bob Franken was sitting there as it happened, and he watched the whole thing unfold. He joins us on the phone line, once again -- Bob.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, what happened is, we heard this was going on and asked if it was occurring here. And they said yes, and we asked if we could get video, and they said no. So we asked again more emphatically, and that's when we were allowed to go outside to shoot the returning, the jubilant celebration of the returning POWs.

As you can see the first five who got out of their helicopter were in robust health, just running off their helicopters, throwing their fists in the air, elated, of course, to be free, and the second helicopter there were two who were more injured, including an African- American woman. She look liked she had an ankle injury. The other one was limping. I was not able to really determine the nature of the injury. Neither of them appeared to be seriously injured but, obviously, are going to require some medical care.

The story is that between Tikrit and Samarra where they believed that they were being held, the Marines were moving up to establish a position as they moved on Tikrit. Meanwhile, off to the side, the Iraqi officers in the unit that was holding the POWs, they deserted, as so many of the military of the Iraqi apparently has. Those who were left went looking to surrender. They came upon the Marines, surrendered and turned over the POWs.

They're investigating there to make sure that they're the members of the 507th unit and the Apache pilots. As we've heard interviews from the families, it seems that some of that is being confirmed. As for the POWs, once they were taken off their helicopters here, here being 65 miles south of Baghdad, they were immediately put on a C-130. They're in good enough shape that they didn't have to go to the field hospital here. Immediately put on a C-130, and were whisked off, we're told, to Kuwait. They went along with two newspaper reporters who have been, in fact, the embedded reporters here who will be talking to them. A reporter from the Miami Herald and a reporter from the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, people here are trying to get information. We are waiting for the identification of all seven of them, but as everybody knows, that is a laborious process, one that the Pentagon vets to make sure that the family is notified, et cetera.

But there is quite a celebration going on here, certainly a mood of that. As the POWs, former POWs, were being taken out of their choppers and being moved to their plane. They were greeted by a number of Marines in humvees who formed a line to applaud them as they went by. It's a very happy moment at this place. Leon?

HARRIS: Bob, have you had a chance to talk with any of the Marines there who may have spoken with any of these troops that have been recovered? I would like to know what they said they heard them say?

FRANKEN: No, as a matter of fact, we have not. As you can imagine, in a situation like that, Pentagon officials, defense officials, put a clamp on everything, because they want to make sure that information they get can be released, that it doesn't compromise their operations, that type of thing. So we haven't been allowed near any of them, and lord knows we've asked. But they will be talking to people as the hours go on, and as I say, we're here now collecting information at the site of their triumphant return to freedom.

HARRIS: We are going to try to be careful about how we identify these seven service members and -- that have been recovered here, but there are a lot of pieces of this mosaic that we already do have in hand.

You say that you did see, you did observe with your own eyes at least one woman in this group. And as far as we know, of the two groups of people we've been talking about throughout the morning, the seven POWs who've been held for some two or three weeks now, and the six that were missing in action, there's only a woman included in that group of seven, correct?

FRANKEN: Yes. And what we're being told is this, look, it appears that it is what you think, but things have such a way of changing, as one attitude here all the time among military are first reports are usually wrong, and you can say that about impressions. In this particular case, it's going to be hard to believe the impressions aren't going to be right given all we've seen. But they just want to make sure that their Ts are crossed and their Is are dotted before they release any final definitive information.

HARRIS: Exactly. We understand that. But tell me, there's got to be some kind of an emotional lift with the guys you're around, they've got to be on some kind of emotional high right now.

FRANKEN: They really are. They really are. I mean, what happened this morning, a Marine source of mine, came up and he couldn't wait, he said, you can't use this yet, but we think, and he was on cloud nine himself, and then, of course, developments occurred very quickly. When it came time to get the information, as I said, there was a bit of discussion about whether they could be seen, and I think what was persuasive to them was they wanted the world to see this very happy ending to a story. HARRIS: Did you happen to listen to the report we had a little while ago of the Canadian newspaper writer, Matthew something -- Matthew Fisher, thank you, Heidi. Did you happen to hear that report, Bob?

He happened to say what he witnessed was that it was an Iraqi patrolman or police officer that actually turned these seven over and that this man did not -- he basically did not appear to be an Iraqi military officer or trooper of any kind at all. Did you happen to hear that report?

FRANKEN: I did not, but I can only, trying to put together and reconcile the two reports, guess that the Iraqi soldiers went to somebody and said, help us surrender, and then it was an Iraqi police officer, as witnessed by the Canadian reporter, who actually got the transaction going. That is the kind of detail that we don't have yet.

HARRIS: Got you. The reason I bring that up is because it struck me, in listening to his report, that the Marines may have caught those, whoever is in Tikrit right now, by surprise. Because -- in Samarra in that area, because he said they did not expect them to be as close as they are. They thought they were 160 kilometers away and that they basically walked up to them and said, are you here for the prisoners? Seemed to be catching them buy surprise.

We'll let you go. Bob, I'm sorry. We're going to move on now; we'll let you go. We're going to let you dig up more information. Whatever you have, Bob, call us back with it immediately. We appreciate that. Bob Franken at a position about 65 miles south of Baghdad. Heidi.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We have some more information now from one of the family members of one of the POWs. CNN's Jamie Colby has just spoken with another family member. Jamie, what can you tell us?

JAMIE COLBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, Michelle Williams has been so brave through this whole process. She herself is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot based at Fort Hood where her husband, David Williams, was as well. He had been deployed. She was awaiting her deployment orders when he was taken prisoner.

I spent several weeks at the base, my producer and I and crew, and it struck us how brave these family members are in these sort of circumstances. But today when I talked to her, I don't even know if I can find the words to express how overjoyed she is. They're parents of two beautiful children, small children, Jason and Madison, and this is going to be an incredible home coming for David Williams. I was on the phone with her when she saw his picture on the air, and was just screaming with joy. This is a really happy moment for these families. And for Bob to be able to bring the kind of information that he is, is just so comforting to families who have waited for any word that each day was so long for them, and now they have this wonderful news.

I'm on my way Killeen. We will hopefully spend time with her later today and bring you more information as we have it. But certainly the news they've been waiting for, and even the reporters who have spent time with these families. I'm sure Susan Candiotti who spent time with the other pilot who was captured with David, can tell you it's a very happy day for us as well.

COLLINS: It's certainly hard, I'm sure, Jamie, not to get mixed up in those fantastic emotions. Let me ask you this, being that Michelle is also a helicopter pilot, she's certainly knows about the training that they have to go through in order to be best prepared for a possible POW situation. Did you get any chance to talk about that?

COLBY: You know, absolutely. And we were at the base when some 12,000 soldiers were deployed, and met with so many of the families, and, of course, she had sort of the inside information because she's been trained as well. But even the families will tell you that their loved ones, soldiers as young as 18, 19 years old, who were going into this situation, particularly those who were deployed after the first pictures of what we saw of how this war was being fought, they knew that this was a very dangerous situation. But the confidence level of how our military was prepared, they all told me, made them very comfortable with the situation they were going into.

And actually, the fourth I.D., which deployed only recently and is now in Kuwait, they couldn't wait to get there. Because there is a very strong motto that they train as they fight, and they never leave a soldier behind. And I don't think anyone would have wanted to leave without finding these seven members of the military. And so I'm sure it's a day for everyone involved that they've been waiting for, and I just can't wait to see Michelle's smile because I really -- this is news that I've prayed she would get. And the other families as well.

COLLINS: I'm sure most of America has been praying for that as well. Now, you are headed to Killeen, Texas, you say, and you'll be able to speak with her?

COLBY: Yes. We will be going to Killeen. Now, of course, since she's in the military, she will wait for clearance for her to be able to meet with us. But we have been talking with her all along and I do believe that we will have a chance to see her and speak with her. And we'll certainly keep you posted on how she's doing, and hopefully be able to introduce you to she and her husband as soon as possible.

COLLINS: Jamie, I can't imagine the conversation that she had with those young children and how she must have explained this new development to them.

COLBY: Well, they're 2 years old, and then she has one under a year, but I'm certain that they sensed her anxiety level. She was surrounded by family. It's a very tight community in Killeen. Everywhere we went, people who knew, even in restaurants that we had met her, gave us, you know, their best wishes and their prayers and certainly all of the spouses of soldiers that were deployed came together to show their support for every family member who had someone deployed.

And just to share with you a little insight when we were there, I had asked a woman who had two small children, her husband only 19 years old, deploying, and I had said, how do you tell your children that, you know, daddy is going to be away? The soldiers had told me they were prepared for as long as a year. And she said, I tell them that daddy has been playing army until now, and that he's gotten so good at playing army that he's now going to play army for real. So, each family in their own way does some age appropriate explanation.

For a child, you could see on their faces the tears, the last hugs, it was a very emotional time as all of these soldiers left. But it's news like this, and also with, you know, Jessica being found, that it's news like this that lifts the spirits of every military (AUDIO GAP).

COLLINS: That is true, I'm sure, Jamie. It sounds like we have lost our connection to Jamie Colby reporting to us from New York today, on Michelle Williams, the wife of David Williams, who believes that she has seen her husband in those pictures that we've been showing this morning.

HARRIS: While we're still waiting for the Pentagon to actually confirm exactly what we believe we may witnessing this morning, we're still trying to track down other family members, various members of the 507th, and see if we can get someone on the phone.

But in the meantime, let's bring in our analyst, Major General Don Shepperd, who's been watching all this morning. I've been watching you watch this video as its played out this morning, General. What do you think?

MAJOR GENERAL DON SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Brings back a lot of memories, Leon. Takes me back to 1972 when we were all glued to our black and white televisions at that time watching the POWs return from Vietnam, counting our friends and the ones that didn't come as well.

But the euphoria of the family members is just obvious. It's great news. The members of those missing in action are still wondering. CNN is appropriately being very careful to let Central Command and the Pentagon confirm the identity, but is appropriately reporting the news as it breaks.

HARRIS: Exactly. How much longer do you think these families will have to wait before they're actually going to get that official notification?

SHEPPERD: The way this works is, each of the families, whether they are POWs or missing, is assigned a liaison. That liaison has to be given the information and told what they can release in the way of information. That takes time. And then they have to travel to the location and give the official notification to the families. That all has to be cleared, for obvious reasons, so you don't give out wrong information, and you don't give out militarily significant information. So again, that takes time. In the meantime, these stories are coming out, and so we're going to get bits and pieces of information before the Pentagon confirms.

HARRIS: Yes, and again here, we see another instance of how things may be changing in the wake of this embedding process. Now that we've got reporters and cameras out there where they ordinarily wouldn't be. We're seeing an information flow that's being altered maybe historically and maybe forever from here on out.

SHEPPERD: Yes. The military would like to maintain control and make sure nothing is said until the families are notified. In this digital age and the information age, that's simply not possible anymore.

HARRIS: Yes, understood. Thanks, General. General Don Shepperd. We'll get back to you in just a bit.


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