WASHINGTON -- American former prisoners of war told publicly for the first time yesterday how they were beaten, shocked with electric wires and otherwise coerced by their Iraqi captors into making videotaped propaganda messages, some of which were broadcast in the United States early in the Persian Gulf war.
At least one of the former prisoners, however, said he was able, in a subtle way, to use the broadcast to send home what may have been an important item of intelligence.
During the broadcast, shown in the United States on Feb. 20, Marine pilot Lt. Col. Clifford M. Acree, 39, of Oceanside, Calif., said that his reconnaissance aircraft had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile -- a seemingly insignificant detail to his
captors, but one that carried a vital warning to other U.S. and allied pilots about Iraq's air defense capabilities.
"The name of the game . . . prior to us being shot down was triple-A -- anti-aircraft artillery," he said. "I wanted some way to establish, to get word back, that surface-to-air missile activity was indeed a player now."
Navy airman Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun,28, of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose swollen face and stilted statement condemning the U.S. war effort in the same broadcast became a feature of the war, said he was beaten by his captors and given no choice about what to say.
"They took me to a TV studio, set me up next to the big guy that was asking the questions," he said. "They . . . told me what questions they were going to ask, then they told me what my answers were going to be."
Lieutenant Zaun said he was "slapped around" during bouts of interrogation. But he said the puffiness in his face had been caused mostly from "popping out of an airplane at 500 miles an hour," when his A-6E attack plane was shot down over southern Kuwait.
He said he punched his own nose at one stage to make it look worse in the vain hope that it would dissuade the Iraqis from putting him on television.
"About 90 percent of the time you felt you were in danger of losing your life, and about 90 percent of the time you were overwhelmed," he said of the experience.
Lieutenant Zaun and Colonel Acree were among seven Navy and Marine Corps officers who addressed a news conference at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Each said he was beaten during interrogation, or as coercion to get him
to speak out against the war. None chose to go into detail about the beatings.
"We did it with integrity, and we did it with pride," said Colonel Acree. "And I thank God we didn't have to stay there as long as the Vietnam POWs did."
While none of the gulf war POWs was held more than six weeks, some U.S. POWs were held for years during the Vietnam War.
At a separate news conference at Andrews Air Force Base, the Associated Press reported Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Tice, 35, of Sellersville, Pa., as saying that his Iraqi interrogators wrapped his ears and chin with electric wire and shocked him to force him to make a video message.
Altogether, 15 of the 21 POWs who returned to the United States last Sunday appeared at the two news conferences. Nearly all said they had been mistreated or abused to some degree. But most refused to give specifics, saying that to do so might imperil the situations of missing U.S. service personnel who may still be alive and in Iraqi hands.
The Navy and Marine officers said that after living through an intense bombing raid on Baghdad Feb. 23, all the POWs were put in a cell together and were able, for the first time, to compare notes and gauge that the U.S. and coalition forces were winning the war.
After the ferocious bombing, said Navy Lt. Lawrence R. Slade, 26, of Virginia Beach, Va., the prisoners were left elated. As one noted at the time, "This is the best morning of my life, following the worst night of my life."
Lieutenant Slade said that he had been worried about the reaction in the United States to his statement but that he had felt rTC the videotape would at least show he was alive.
Lieutenant Zaun said he tried to distort his replies on the tape without his interrogators' being aware of it. But, he said, they did not appear concerned as they were "translating" into Arabic what they intended him to say -- to use as propaganda for the Arab world.
"I was a little worried that . . . [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] might be able to give the Iraqis the impression that he indeed was beating us," Lieutenant Zaun said. But he was not worried about the impression it would make in the United States.
"I had enough faith in the Americans to know that anyone that saw this was going to go, 'That's ridiculous,' " he said.
Air Force Capt. William S. Andrews, 32, of Waterloo, N.Y., suffered a broken leg after being shot down, but told reporters that he had been treated "pretty good" and with compassion at an Iraqi military hospital in Basra, in southern Iraq.