Marines rescue seven U.S. prisoners of war
President Bush: 'It's a great way to start a morning'
TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines rescued seven American soldiers held by Iraqis north of Baghdad on Sunday before rushing off to join in the battle for Tikrit, according to a Canadian reporter embedded with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Marines took custody of the Americans outside Samarra, a town about 25 miles [40 kilometers] south of Tikrit in north-central Iraq and 75 miles [120 kilometers] north of Baghdad.
U.S. Central Command identified the freed prisoners of war as Spc. Joseph Hudson, Sgt. James Riley, Spc. Shoshana Johnson, Spc. Edgar Hernandez and Pfc. Patrick Miller -- members of a convoy from the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company that was ambushed March 23 near Nasiriya -- and chief warrant officers Ronald Young Jr. and David S. Williams, pilots who were captured March 24 after their Apache helicopter gunship went down south of Baghdad.
President Bush said, "It's a great way to start a morning -- that seven Americans are going to be home soon in the arms of their loved ones."
Bush, returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David, Maryland, said the United States would continue to search and pray for remaining missing troops.
Three of the seven received treatment for minor injuries at a military hospital in Kuwait City, said chief nurse Lt. Col. Ruth Lee. She said the other four required no treatment.
All seven, officials said, were released from the hospital and taken to an undisclosed location.
The Marine unit was sent to Samarra to keep traffic from interfering with an armored column approaching Tikrit, Brig. Gen. John Kelly told Matthew Fisher, a reporter with Canada's National Post newspaper.
Tikrit is Saddam Hussein's hometown and the only major Iraqi city outside of coalition control. (Full story)
At a traffic circle near a dam on Samarra's outskirts, an Iraqi policeman approached the Marines and asked if they had come for prisoners, Fisher said.
The policeman led the Marines to a nearby building, Fisher reported, where they found the seven Americans guarded by Iraqi soldiers.
Kelly told Fisher that the Iraqis were surprised by the arrival of the Marines, telling the Americans they had thought they had "a few more days" before they came. The Iraqi soldiers reportedly said their officers had abandoned their posts and surrendered to U.S. forces.
The Marines surrounded the prisoners to assure them they wouldn't be abandoned and gave them fresh clothes, Fisher said. He said one of the former prisoners told the Marines, "It is so good to be back with Americans."
They were given first aid, Fisher said, and then whisked away on Army helicopters.
The seven Americans were taken to a coalition air base 65 miles [104 kilometers] south of Baghdad and then transferred to C-130 transport plane that took them to Kuwait City.
The Americans and their Iraqi guards were to be debriefed in Kuwait, said CNN correspondent Bob Franken, who is embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Fisher said he heard orders on military radio for the Marines near Samarra to complete the recovery as soon as possible and "get north as fast as you can."
"It was a lightning-speed operation," he said.
Franken said five of the Americans ran as they got off the helicopter at the base south of Baghdad. The other two were more seriously injured but were able to walk and carry their gear.
Families see loved ones on television
Before receiving official word from the U.S. military, some family members of the former POWs said they recognized their loved ones in CNN's video of the soldiers' arrival at the coalition air base.
Young's parents said they recognized their son on television. A Pentagon representative gave them the official confirmation later at their home in Lithia Springs, Georgia.
"I'm ecstatic," Ronald Young Sr. said.
"The main thing to me is knowing he's all right," Young said. "It's a relief. You just don't know how much it is. It's almost like Christmas, New Year's and everything all rolled into one."
He added, "He looked great. He looked like he's grown a few whiskers and maybe lost a little weight, but other than that, he's all right."
Anecita Hudson, Hudson's mother, said, "The Army, they let me know my Joseph is safe."
Jane and Athol Riley, the parents of Sgt. James Riley, learned their son was safe when they returned to the home in Pennsauken, New Jersey, from Palm Sunday services.
They spoke with their son for a few minutes and found out he is relieved, but never wants to eat chicken or rice again. "I guess that's what they gave them," his mother said.
Upon hearing the news Sunday, Edgar Hernandez's family walked outside their home in Mission, Texas, and lowered the POW flag that had been hanging from a flagpole in their front yard.
"We just started crying of joy," Hernandez's brother, Joel, told CNN. "We were just so happy to hear the good news that he's coming home safe, and all the prisoners of war that were out there are coming to their families."
In their conversation, Edgar asked his parents how they were doing before they had a chance to ask him about his experience.
"My brother's always been like that -- he's always cared for us more than he does himself," Joel Hernandez said.
A representative of Shoshana Johnson's family in El Paso, Texas, read a statement.
"We are ecstatic that not only she is safe but that all the POWs are back in the U.S. hands," the statement said. "We thank God for watching over them. We are very grateful for all the worldwide prayers."
Patrick Miller's brother Shane Parker told CNN from Valley Center, Kansas, that he learned of his brother's recovery when his mother called him. He said he had not watched much television in recent days because images of his then-captive brother upset him.
"I talked to my mom, and she said he looks really, really good, not cut up or anything like that," Parker said. "He looks really good."
CNN correspondent Jamie Colby was on the phone with Michele Williams, the wife of Apache pilot David Williams, when she saw his image on television.
Colby said Michele Williams, herself a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, screamed with joy when she recognized her husband.
Five of the Americans were members of the same company as former prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Lynch, who arrived Saturday for treatment at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, was rescued from a hospital Nasiriya in a commando operation April 1.
All seven POWs were shown on Iraqi television shortly after their capture, but Red Cross officials were never able to meet with them.
Finding POWs and MIAs has been a high priority as the war progressed and coalition troops took control of Iraqi areas.