Former POWs Tell Their Story
May 14, 2003
Chief Warrant Officers David Williams and Ronald Young Jr. are Apache helicopter pilots who came home from Iraq after experiencing just about everything that can happen to a soldier.
The two pilots were shot down in a devastating firefight on March 24, shot at as they fled on foot, captured, held prisoner, beaten, displayed as trophies, rescued and hailed as heroes -- all within just 22 days.
Their story is a harrowing account of everything that war can be.
Although they have been home for a few weeks, they haven’t shared their whole story publicly until now.
Their tale begins with a ferocious battle deep inside Iraq that brought their Apache down. Correspondent Dan Rather reports.
“I remember taking a round across the top of my left foot -- [it] had come through the aircraft and split open the top of my boot,” says Williams. “Fortunately, I still have my toes, but the powder burns, and it nicked my big toe and I think that round is what really did us in.”
Williams and Young flew into a firestorm and survived, with their humor intact, their friendship strong and their loyalties clear.
“There are still guys over there and we want them in everyone’s prayers and to remember those that have fallen,” says Young. “But also, we do this job because we love it.”
They do not believe they are heroes, but they believe their unit, 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, out of Fort Hood, Texas, performed heroically. They want Americans to know it.
On the night of March 23, 18 Apache helicopters set out across a sea of sand. The Apaches flew low and fast, taking fire and firing back, clearing the decks for American ground troops.
What none of the pilots knew on the night of March 23 was that this time, the Iraqi Republican Guard had planned an ambush, using cell phones to communicate the Apache positions as the helicopters swept toward Karbala.
There, in the darkness, a deadly hornet’s nest was waiting.
“It’s the wildest laser show you’ve ever seen in your life, all that stuff going on,” says Young. “And the next thing you know, just that fast, you’re in it. And bullets are going by you. It’s just intense.”
“I remember Ron saying, ‘Man, don’t fly through that.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to fly through that,’” remembers Williams. “And it was like as soon as I said that, somebody opened up on us. And that’s when it all went downhill from there.”
Today, two months after the firefight, on the Udarri range in the desert of Kuwait, a massive tent is a temporary home for the men and women of the 227th attack helicopter battalion – the group that flew with and fought beside Williams and Young.
Lance McElhiney is the most senior Apache pilot in the unit, a veteran of Vietnam and the first Gulf War.
He describes the Iraqis they encountered in the firefight as tough enemies -- more sophisticated, more determined, and more deadly than most Americans might think.
“The night of the 23rd - 24th was some of the heaviest anti-aircraft systems I have ever seen. This was a smart enemy. They had learned from 12 years ago. They had shut down the power quads in the city and when we got deep into the city, whack the lights went on,” says McElhiney. “We were skylighted and they started shooting. If people saw the pictures of Baghdad, if they can remember 12 years ago, tracers in the sky, we took about 10 times more. And we stayed there for 45 minutes fighting the enemy.”
“I saw a lot of young kids become men, a girl become a woman. I saw a lot of people’s lives changed forever.”
Williams and Young, like the other Apache teams, were taking heavy fire.
“I realized about a minute and a half into flying into that stuff, you know, doing all the stuff I was doing, that I wasn’t breathing,” says Young. “I had to tell myself to start breathing again.”
“I didn’t even know it. And all I could think to myself was, ‘Holy crap. Oh, my god, I can’t believe this.’ And I mean bullets are whizzing within inches of your head.”
Eventually, their Apache weapons system got knocked out. Young was unable to return fire and Williams struggled to stay in the air -- by then, missing one engine and running out of options.
“I said, ‘We’re going down,’” says Williams. “And he said, ‘Try to keep flying, try to keep flying it,’ and we did.”
“We were just getting tagged at that point,” adds Young.
“I could hear a round hitting the side. I could feel it in the seat,” says Williams. “The rounds hitting the side of the aircraft. Smoke and fire and aviation don’t go well together. An aircraft will burn up in a matter of minutes.”
“I’m trying to get a radio call out to let somebody know we’re on foot. And that’s exactly what I say, we’re on foot,” remembers Young. “And you can still hear the rounds. You can see the rounds coming over the top of the aircraft, still. And he pulls the power levers off and I hear, ‘Get out.’ And within a split second, I mean, it was the like the smoothest move I’ve ever done in my life, I pretty much pushed myself out of the cockpit, undid my seat belt, yanked my helmet out of the cannon plug and I was standing out there. I don’t really remember the impact.”
Williams doesn’t remember either.
Pilots Fred Polidore and Matthew Stauffer were trying to provide cover for the helicopter carrying Williams and Young.
“Lance called me over the radio and said, ‘Did you hear Ron and Dave went down,’” remembers Stauffer.
“The teams got separated and we continued to call them over the radio,” says Polidore. “There was just silence and we said to ourselves, ‘We’ve got to find them. We need to know.’“
Several times, Williams attempted to call for a hasty pickup, to have another helicopter come and pick them up. “But unfortunately, due to the fight, everybody had their own little fight going on.”
“We stayed in the area looking for our guys until we had nothing working,” says Polidore. “No weapons system, we hear engine two is out, we had no choice but to go back.”
At the end of every operation, the Apaches were supposed to gather. But on the morning of March 24, one was missing.
“You land and it seemed everyone was emotionless,” says Stauber. “Faces were emotionless, they just stared.“
“I sat by the tail boom of my aircraft. I watched the sun come up,” remembers McElhiney. “And I didn’t show much emotion in front of people, but I cried.“
The other pilots counted their blessings, and the bullet holes. Almost all of the Apaches had been hit repeatedly. Nearly all the rotor blades had to be repaired or replaced.
“The one thing that I will never ever forget as long as I live is the sound of those rounds hitting my aircraft,” says Capt. Chad Lewis, company commander for the group. “The majority of us were very lucky to make it out of there that night.”
But Williams and Young were not as lucky. In a field 50 miles away from their friends, the downed pilots were running for their lives.
“At this point, we’re running through weeds and stuff,” says Young. “Kind of tripping over each other, just trying to get away from the aircraft.”
“The Iraqis could hear that the aircraft went down,” adds Williams. “And they were converging very quickly.”
“But you’ve got to run. You have to save your own life at that point,” says Young. “And it was up to me and Dave to save our own lives.”
The two pilots remember stumbling over each other to escape. “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time,” says Young. “But I look over and his lip light is on and it’s yellow and people are shooting at us. And I yell at him that his lip light is on. I jump on top of him and start trying to rip the lip light out of his helmet.”
“And then he looked at me and says, ‘Your lip light is on,’” says Young, laughing. “So we threw our helmets, and we keep on running a little further.”
Williams and Young both had 9 mm pistols. “I had mine out and I was ready to go,” says Young.
They heard Iraqis approaching, and the pair crawled into a ditch.
“Like an alligator, just quietly goes along a creek, just with the eyes above water, that’s what we did,” says Williams. “Just with our noses above the water level. And we just kind of moved along.”
“At first it wasn’t that cold. Of course, all the adrenaline, all the running and how much, we had heated up,” says Young. “But after a while, it just became bitterly cold. To where you could hardly move. And we started worried about going hypothermic, which would only add to a bad situation.”
So they climbed out of the mud while the Iraqis drew closer.
“They got so close that we could hear them talking,” says Williams. “What we do is we tried to lay, we actually laid down in the mud face down in hopes that they would have just walked by and missed us ... You know I could feel my heart ... and I was just praying, ‘Please, please, just walk by.’ Neither one of us wanted to be a prisoner.”
The two started whispering. “What do you want me to do,” Young remembers saying. “At this point, you know, it’s still keep yourself alive.
But Williams says it was obvious that the Iraqis knew where they were located.
“I kind of slowly turned my head to look at them,” he says. "We knew they had a lot more firepower that we did. I mean we were outnumbered. And I slowly raised my left hand up.”
Next: What happened to David Williams and Ronald Young inside Iraq, in the hands of the enemy?
In The Hands Of The Enemy
When their Apache went down, Young and Williams ran for their lives. But their luck ran out, and they found themselves surrounded by Iraqis who were armed to the teeth -- and angry.
“You know they’re yelling in Arabic and we’re just sitting there with our arms straight out and they yell at us," remembers Young.
"And I’m like, well I guess we need to get up on our knees. So we get up on our knees with our hands behind our heads. And they start yelling louder. So we got back on our knees and then I was like, well, maybe we need to stand up. So we stood up and one of them shot at me. Right past my head. And we hit the ground. We didn’t move after that.”
Young says the gunman fired from about 15 feet away, and he could feel the bullet go past him. "It was from some old Chechen muzzle loader or something. I mean a barbaric gun.” After that, "we got on the ground and pretty much started praying out loud to God at this point."
There were prayers aplenty in the next three weeks, prayers that helped them in their first few moments of captivity, when the beatings began.
Williams remembers, "The guy came over to me, hit me in the back, lower back with a stick. And the guy with the AK was standing next to Ron. It was like they were angry or taking their aggression out on us.”
He says he was struck on the back of the neck and back of the head. He was kicked a couple of times in the ribs, and in the leg. He says he was hit "just everywhere really.”
Did he think he was going to die right there in the dirt, in the mud beside the lake?
"I was terrified," Williams says. "All I could do was pray to myself, 'Please let me just survive this.' At least to get to somewhere where it's more organized. With nobody watching, they could have done anything they wanted to us.”
The two were tied up and put on a road that led into town. A growing crowd trailed behind, kicking them, hitting them, hurting them.
Young says, “As they’re dragging us up the road, this guy keeps slapping me across the back of the head with a stick. And some guy’ll walk over and just whop me one good time. Your hands are behind your back. There’s nothing you can do. They’re just waling.”
They were taken inside a house, says Williams, and searched thoroughly: "They took everything. Our watches, rings, our money, ID cards, all our survival equipment. Everything except our flight suits, which we were wearing, and our boots.”
By the next morning, Iraqi TV was airing images of the downed Apache, surrounded by chanting crowds. A farmer bragged to the cameras that he had shot the chopper down. The pilots’ helmets, gear and papers were examined by the crowd as though they had fallen to Earth from outer space.
The pilots were in the city of Karbala, being questioned for hours. Young says they were inside the police station, which is where the video of the two was shot. It was the world's first glimpse of the pilots as prisoners.
"I assume this is for their propaganda of how humane they are,” says Williams.
The Pentagon released the barest facts about them. David Williams, 30, married with two children. Ronald Young, 26, born and raised in Georgia.
The men looked angry and afraid, and their friends and fellow pilots found the images painful.
“I remember hearing about them being displayed on TV and I was angry," says Stauffer. "I remember welling up when they described how they looked on TV. Like Dave was quite serious. And Ron looked pissed off. That made me so happy because I knew what was going through Ron’s head, because I know those two.”
The other pilots were sent on an emotional roller coaster when they saw the video. Pilot Joe Goode said his feelings were decidedly mixed. “You’re happy to see they’re alive," he explains. "You’re worried whether or not they’re going to be treated the right way, just concerned over all. I guess just the biggest thing is just hope that they would make it home.”
Goode had flown that night with Cynthia Rosel. She says that seeing her fellow pilots imprisoned made her feel guilty.
“The thing that bothered me the most is that Joe and I were circling that area," says Rosel. "We were taking fire, but I didn’t know they were down there. If I would have known, I would have tried. I felt like we left those guys down there.”
The men and women of the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment did what they could. They kept their friends’ gear out and ready. Some grew moustaches that wouldn’t be shaved until the pilots came home. At the front, they all wore memorial headbands.
McElhiney says he wore a headband with the pilots' names on the back every day in the combat area.
"We set up their cots in their normal spot," recalls Polidore. "Ron had his guitar he loves. We put the guitar on his cot.”
“Everybody wanted their cot next to them. Everybody wanted a piece of them,” adds Stauffer.
Ironically, it was the American military that came closest to killing Williams and Young.
After the men were questioned for two days in Karbala, they were driven in separate vehicles to Baghdad. Young says they drove in a Forerunner type of SUV, with armed guards on either side. He says he was told they were going to Baghdad.
During the heavy American bombing, the two men were moved into a poorly-designed prison with thick walls. It was deteriorating and had a frighteningly thin roof.
"This prison had a tin roof on it," says Williams. "A tin roof.”
For 11 days and nights, they listened to the bombing of Baghdad, shouting to each other through the walls.
Young says, “I actually yelled to Dave one day during a bad bomb. I told him the Iraqis were mostly harmless. That it was the bombs that were gonna kill us.”
Williams explains, “I have always bragged about how strong we are as a country, America’s might. And there I was on the receiving end of it. And we were. And it was terrifying.
"I remember laying on the floor under this wool blanket they had given us. And it was like watching an earthquake, like something on TV. The door was moving.”
Young describes, “Three foot thick walls, shaking like trees in the wind.”
Amid the constant explosions and the steady fear, the men made an astonishing discovery: They were not the only Americans enduring the bombing of Baghdad locked behind prison walls.
Young says, “The first person I saw in that prison was Shoshana, that I realized was an American.” He's referring to former POW Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who was taken prisoner with four other soldiers when their supply convoy was ambushed near Nasariyah.
"I saw her limping by," he says, "and that’s when I knew that we had people in there. And I could hear them talking about some of the wounds they had. And I realized that we’re in here with other Americans and some of them had been shot.”
The prisoners, all of whom had been displayed in terrifying snippets on Iraqi TV, were kept isolated from each other.
Were they mistreated in any way? Yes, says Williams.
"Did they give us water, rice and bread?" he asks. "Yes. Were they humane? Maybe. Did they follow the Geneva Convention? No they did not. They said continuously, 'No, you kill our women and children. That is not Geneva Convention.'"
They asked to see the other prisoners, to see that they were getting medical attention. But all requests were refused.
When the bombs were fierce, the Americans shouted encouragement to each other from cell to cell.
“First time, I guess it was just nervousness, I gave them a big whooooo-hooooo," Young recalls with a laugh. "Some more bombs hit and I got up and said, 'You know this crap ain’t funny anymore.'”
Williams says he told one of the guards, "You need to take us somewhere safer. This is not a safe place. And he said ‘No, very strong’ and I said, ‘This is not strong.’ But they had no idea what our capabilities are.”
Williams and Young say all the prisoners drew strength from the power of the American military. They silently celebrated when they heard American tanks roar through the capital.
“I listened to the war going on all day," Young says. "I mean, because it's right outside the door pretty much. And that was probably the best thing for me, is to hear the tanks rolling through and all the rounds going off. Because I just knew that we were kicking their butt. And that brought me a lot of joy throughout the day. The guards would open a peephole in my door when the bombing would get really loud, just to see what we were doing in our cells. And I would pull my head out from under the blanket and smile at them. Getting inside their head.”
Before long, American troops were streaming into Baghdad. But by the time the statue of Saddam hit the ground on April 9, the prisoners were gone.
Guards had rushed them out of the prison and begun driving them from place to place -- with what the prisoners feared was a sinister purpose.
Young says he had the feeling that "they wanted us to be bombed. They would drag us around the city and put us in pretty dangerous spots."
They'd be left overnight, Williams adds, “hoping that the Americans would actually hit us with a bomb.”
After the fall of Baghdad, amid the jubilation and looting, the guards watching the seven POWs found themselves without any takers.
"It's sort of like they didn’t want to be caught with us when the music stopped," says Williams. "And people were reluctant to take custody of us.”
“They would drive up to people’s houses and ask them if they could keep us there," says Young. "And the people would tell them no.”
Eventually, the constant movement and the chaos that overwhelmed Iraq nearly cost all seven prisoners their lives.
They are young men who already have a lifetime worth of war stories. Apache pilots David Williams and Ronald Young Jr. were shot down in a firefight and held by the Iraqis.
They listened to the bombing of Baghdad from behind prison walls, and they waited, and prayed, not knowing whether they faced deliverance or death.
“The first straight day that I was in prison, I was on my knees praying, I mean 12 straight hours. Every morning was hard for me,” says Williams.
“I was happy I made it through the night without being killed. But then I was sad that I had to stay in there one more day. Don’t get me wrong, I never lost hope or faith that the Americans were coming. As long as I heard the bombs, I felt good. But I still cried, because I didn’t think I was ever going to see my little boy, or my wife, or my little girl. And that was the hardest.”
Young says he prayed that God would take the fear away from him, that it would be a swift victory, “that if I do die, my family would remember me. That they’d be honored by what I did for my country. And that people would always remember me for the type of person that I was, and of course, that I would make it through.”
They had made it through most of the war. Ironically, it was while the fighting wound down that they almost died.
The Iraqis, desperate to keep the Americans from being rescued, took all seven prisoners on one last wild ride. Williams and Young remember being transported in a van with 13 people and five guards. The two pilots rode in the back of the van while they were being moved to another location.
“While we had our hands bound behind our back, blindfolded, one of the moves, they moved us from a prison, right out in the middle of a doggone firefight,” says Williams.
“This was the scariest,” remembers Young. And the worst, adds Williams.
Many Iraqi streets at that time were crowded and chaotic. Suddenly, in front of the prisoners’ ambulance, there was an explosion and gunfire.
“We jumped a curb and pulled right out into the middle, where the Iraqis are on one side of the street and the Americans are on the other side of the street,” remembers Williams. “We’re in the crossfire, driving right down the center of it.”
“Ron and I were like, ‘Please, this is not the way to go, in an ambulance, in a traffic accident.’ We were terrified that we’d get in one of those.”
“We were doing about 110, I’m sure of it,” says Young. “We were on two wheels, and me and him are sitting on the side getting everyone to lean so that we keep all four wheels on the ground. We were going so fast around curves and stuff. I mean, truly the scariest part of the entire captivity was that ride.”
It was horrible, says Williams. “The driver and the two passengers up front were screaming out the windows for everybody to get out of the way. My biggest fear is that we would be in an accident, and the Iraqis would come investigate who was in the ambulance, and see us all blindfolded. That would been very bad.”
They were worried that if they were discovered, they would be attacked. “Kind of like Somalia,” says Young.
“You know, we would been defenseless, handcuffed,” adds Williams. “They would have just torn us apart.”
At this point, Iraqi civilians appeared to be tearing apart their own country. Chaos now reigned in the capitol. But in a small village, three hours north of Baghdad, it was quiet.
The seven Americans were bound and blindfolded and locked inside a house, helpless and under constant guard.
“I think this was the seventh place we were at. And I will say, these last three guys that we interacted with were probably the most humane,” says Williams.
The prisoners had little to do but listen, and try to figure out how far away their American rescuers might be.
“We knew the guys were on the ground because of the type of aircraft that were flying,” says Williams. “That we could hear, and we knew the guys were coming in.”
However, they didn’t know that a Marine commander in their area had gotten a tip that changed everything.
“The commander, I guess somebody [Iraqi people] had gone to him and said there’s Americans at a house being held,” says Williams. “And he acted on it. He said OK, ‘We’re going to go get them.’”
Young says he heard people yelling “Get down on the ground,” when the Marines came. “I told everyone to get on the ground and we laid down and told the guards to get on the ground, and they did.”
“The next thing, I know I’ve got a Marine standing there with a gun pointing in my face who just came through that door. It was awesome,” says Young. “I was not prepared to see another soldier like that, someone that had been through battle. These guys were hard, and they were the hollow-eyed killers that you would think they were, coming through that door. And it shocked me. It really, it shocked me.”
“To have them kick in the door and come in screaming. I just couldn’t control my emotions. I just started crying,” says Williams. “It was the most beautiful thing to see those boys come in there, as professional as they were, as they had trained. I mean, it was quick, furious. I was speechless.”
“They said they were happy to see us,” adds Young. “They said we made the war for them, the fact that they found us.”
Young and Williams emerged wearing the filthy pajamas they’d had on for weeks. Ragged but relieved, the prisoners were taped climbing into an American vehicle -- their faces a reflection of how differently each dealt with their trauma.
Young was 25 pounds lighter, and exuberant. Williams was 25 pounds lighter, and exhausted.
Back in the desert, their unit commander, Colonel Ball, saw the first sign that something big was in the works.
“I found out because the regimental commander came looking for me and as he’s running, literally running – towards me and this is a guy that outranks me. He is running towards me and I can’t tell you if it’s good or bad, but I see him coming and I’m like, ‘Oh, boy,’” says Ball. “He tells me, ‘We just got word that there are prisoners of war that we’ve just found. We don’t know who they are yet but they are prisoners of war.’ And I can tell you that I don’t think my feet touched the ground from there to his control center to where I could get on the telephone and talk to higher headquarters.”
Ball says it took them about two hours before they could receive confirmation and find out the names of the rescued prisoners of war. After that, word began to spread.
“Colonel Ball came up to me and he says, ‘I’ve got some good news for you,’” says McElhiney. “As soon as he said that, I went, ‘Yeah, baby. Yeah. I know what it is.’”
“I kind of glanced over at the TV and CNN and pictures up of the seven POWs. It wasn’t clear because the TV screen was rolling, but I just stopped what I was doing and just kind of stared at the TV,” says Polidore. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Oh my god, I think we’ve got them.’”
“I remember several different people yelled. Some people clapped. All I could do was sit there and I just thought about what they had gone through,” says Stauffer. “I thought finally, thank God that this happened.”
“They loaded us up on a helicopter, which was not exactly what we wanted at this point,” says Young, laughing. “All I could think on that helicopter was, ‘I don’t want to be a POW twice in one war.’”
Their first stop was in Kuwait, for a visit with their commanders.
“When I saw the colonel come in and the commander, you could tell that they were very upset. They were relieved to see us, so happy,” says Williams. “And I couldn’t hold my tears back. I was so happy to see them because I thought I never would ever again. And I told the colonel that I’m sorry and he said, ‘Don’t worry, son. You did everything right.’”
Williams apologized because he felt like he had failed. “I didn’t come back with the rest of the company. We got caught.”
The seven Americans were unloaded to cheers at an American military base in Germany. There, they received medical treatment, counseling, and for the first time in weeks, kindness.
They landed in Fort Hood, Texas, after midnight. A few important family members were waiting.
Williams hugged his wife and asked to see her face. “I didn’t cry that time when I saw her because I had cried so much,” he says.
“But I was just beside myself to have her in my arms again. It was incredible, the feelings. And during captivity, I at some point had to stop thinking about my family because it hurt so bad. Just to see her again … I’m speechless. The feelings is overwhelming.”
Young says he first got off the plane and saw his parents waiting for him.
“My mother’s standing there, and she had made a remark about wanting to hug me for 30 minutes. So she tried. It was something that you never thought would happen again in your life. And it’s something that you value deeply after a situation like that.”
That night, they were greeted by thousands of people, and they gave their first speeches.
The next day, they met President Bush.
For Williams and Young, it had been a whirlwind journey -- from pilots, to prisoners, to war heroes.
“I think the biggest thing when we got home is not really wanting to be separated at that point,” says Young. “Probably one of the tougher things that we did was just to separate all apart.”
From each other and the other POWs, adds Williams. “We had such a fellowship with each other.”
The two former POWs have been home since Easter Sunday, but it will take more than a month of friends and family to blot out the terror of their time in captivity.
Both men say they still find themselves back in Iraq, in their dreams.
"I do a lot of running in mine, just running," says Young. "Running, hiding. People always out to get me. It’s just like that night. It’s just like trying to get away from people and they’re right there in front of you. I mean they’re so close, but yet, you’re still running. You’re holding onto that little piece of hope that you’re getting away.”
In his nightmares, Williams says he can't speak. "It’s dark. My hands are bound, and as hard as I try to yell or turn on the lights, it doesn’t happen, like I’m restricted. I assume that’s because of the captivity. It was 22 days. It was the hardest 22 days of my life.”