NUMANIYAH, Iraq, April 13 -- 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.
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