Marines recount POW rescue operation

15 Apr 2003 | Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly

On a tip from an Iraqi policeman, Marines with Company D, 3d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion dashed through sniper fire on the streets of Samarra, Iraq, to find and rescue American prisoners of war.

As they searched in the early morning hours of April 13, they felt the situation was eerily similar to the infamous 1993 battle in Somalia they had studied, where American soldiers were ambushed.
The streets and rooftops in the town square quickly began to fill as the Marines searched house to house.

"I could see maybe 30 people just on one roof. They were everywhere," said Lance Corporal Curney Russell Jr., an 18-year-old scout with 3d Platoon. "I wondered if the tip was a setup."

"We didn't want another 'Black Hawk Down' scene having to fight our way out of a town," said Corporal Christopher Castro, referring to the book about the deadly clash in Somalia's densely populated capital of Mogadishu.

Marines received the intelligence information while in a blocking position outside Samarra. The local police officer advised them to "look in Building 13 if you want to find the Americans."

The Marines were directed to go in "weapons tight" (meaning be sure of your target), according to Castro, who is 3d Plt's chief scout. The team's leaders made everyone aware that friendly forces possibly were inside and deadly force should be used with extreme caution.

"We went in knowing they'd [any Iraqi forces would] be armed," he said. "If they had their weapons holstered or even not aimed at us, we wouldn't shoot. We didn't want any firing. We didn't want to hit the POWs."

Some Marines were on foot and others were in light armored vehicles. Foot-mobile teams spread out through the alleys and streets looking for Building 13.

After the locals began amassing, the Marines were preparing to pull out when LCpl Russell heard a voice coming from a window.

" 'We're Americans. My name is Chief Warrant Officer Williams,' " Russell recalled hearing. The voice came from within Building 13. Russell immediately notified his commander of the discovery.

A team of Marines raced through the streets to his position. After pounding the door three times, the Marine officer gave the nod. Two powerful kicks later, the wooden door splintered and Marines rushed into the dimly lit room where Army CWO David Williams and the six other prisoners of war were being held.

"Speed, speed, speed," Russell said. "It's all about getting 'em and getting out as fast as possible."

With rifles pointing in every direction and Marines screaming for everyone to get down, they took control of the situation instantly. Three unarmed guards were lying facedown among the POWs.

Russell loudly announced, "If you're an American, stand up now!" The seven stood and quickly were ushered outside to a secure rally point.

As the American soldiers were being separated from their captors, they implored the Marines to be temperate with the Iraqi guards.

" 'Don't hurt them,' " Russell recalled CWO Williams shouting. " 'They're our friends. They helped us out.' "

The Iraqis earlier had rid themselves of their weapons as they awaited the rescue. The POWs later said their Iraqi guards had pooled their own money to buy medicine and food for the POWs. They had been in this location only a few days.

The Iraqis were cooperative and "did everything they were told to do," Castro said. They were taken as enemy prisoners of war and turned over to intelligence officers.

The Marines could hear sniper fire while exiting the house, so the rescuees were moved in a tactical formation. Marines formed a shoulder-to-shoulder, 180-degree wall in front of the rescued POWs. Castro and Russell helped the wounded along while armored vehicles rolled closely behind them. Other vehicles blocked intersections and scouted farther ahead.

"There was no way the guys we just rescued were going to get shot now," Castro said. "That was the last thing we were going to let happen. They'd have to take us down first."

Within moments the Marines had the rescued soldiers out of town. The whole operation took less than 30 minutes, according to Castro. An hour and a half later they were airborne in CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.

"They were shaken up. They kept hugging us and thanking us," Russell said. "They went from being real uptight and shaky at first to very excited and even relaxed."

The helicopters flew the ex-POWs, Castro and Russell to an airfield about 65 miles south of Baghdad. The two Marines were instructed by their commanding officer to accompany the soldiers out of Iraq and to ensure their comfort.

"We were the first Americans they'd seen since they were captured," Castro said. "They kind of clung to us from the start, so our CO figured they needed some familiar faces traveling with them."

As two CH-46 helicopters sandblasted an awaiting throng of Marines at the airfield, which was part of Logistical Support Area Chesty, one of the ex-POWs flashed the hand gesture "V" for victory through a porthole. The anxious crowd, which didn't know what condition the soldiers were in, responded with cheers.

With the help of Castro and Russell, the soldiers debarked the helicopters one at a time. Most wore ragtag outfits fashioned from various uniform components and Iraqi garb. By military standards, they were in dire need of a shave and haircut.

After maneuvering through still photographers and a CNN television crew, they climbed into military ambulances headed for a KC-130 cargo plane.

Scores of Marines jumped from their vehicles as the ambulances passed by. They clapped and shouted encouragement.

Once the ambulances stopped, most of the soldiers literally bounded through the ambulances' back doors and up the aircraft's ramp. Those not capable of moving as fast limped up the ramp with help from their personal guards.

The inside of the KC-130 turned into a party. Hands were thrown in the air. Those capable jumped up and down. A few of the soldiers wrapped Marines in bear hugs. The Marines hugged back. Someone shouted out, "I love you, man!"

The plane lifted off, heading south.

"When the C-130 was landing, one of the soldiers asked me if we were still in Iraq," Russell said. "He seemed relieved when I told him we were in Kuwait. I could tell he was just happy to be out of Iraq."

The two Marines accompanied the freed POWs all the way to Camp Doha, Kuwait. Castro said the Army personnel treated them like "someone special." They had a warm meal, slept in an actual bed and enjoyed a hot shower all for the first time in about a month.

Both Marines were permitted to call home. Russell, a native of Manchester, N.H., found out his wife was expecting a baby girl. Castro discovered his image had been shown on television, Web sites and newspapers everywhere. Reporters already had contacted both Marines' families.

The next morning they asked to be returned to Iraq as soon as possible.

"We have to get to our unit," said Castro. "There is still fighting. We can't miss that."

They returned to Iraq the next day, stopping at I Marine Expeditionary Force's command element. The I MEF commander, Lieutenant General James T. Conway, gave Castro and Russell unit coins and said they have "made the Corps proud."

Castro was quick to point out, "All the scouts who went in on the rescue did great. They showed great speed and aggressiveness. They knew what to do and they did it. We were just the two lucky enough to go with them."

His battalion, while transiting from San Diego to Kuwait, spent time at sea-honing tactics that included moving through built-up areas like the town square in Samarra.

"If you train right, you can rely on it no matter what happens," Castro said. "We trained so much for situations like this, I didn't have to give any direction. Everyone knew just what needed to be done, and they did it."

The seven soldiers rescued were Army CWO Williams, CWO Ronald Young, Sergeant James Riley, Specialists Edgar Hernandez, Joseph Hudson and Shoshana Johnson, and Private First Class Patrick Miller. The five enlisted soldiers were assigned to the Army's 507th Maintenance Bn out of Fort Hood, Texas. Their convoy was ambushed March 23. The two warrant officers were captured after their AH-64A Apache helicopter was shot down March 24.

Both Castro and Russell agreed they hope to see the former POWs again.

"We gave them our phone numbers," said Castro, who calls San Antonio home. "Most of them are stationed in Texas and I'm from Texas. I'd be more than happy to drive up and see them. They told us they want us to meet their kids."