Home at last: hostages told a tale of abuse -- and survival

They played Monopoly together, scrawled patriotic slogans on jail walls, and sometimes returned abuse from their captors tit for tat. A repertoire of survival tactics from love to anger sustained the 52 American hostages during their 444-day ordeal in Iran, and now they must cope with the shock of becoming instant heroes in their own land of freedom.

Through it all -- the mock executions, the burning of unread family letters, the dark loneliness of isolation -- the captives showed a spirit of companionship, fortitude, self-discipline, and patience.

This is picture that emerged from scattered conversations and interviews with the freed hostages at the military hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, and from their long-distance phone calls with their families in the United States. Now, settled into the Thayer Hotel at West Point, N.Y., the freed Americans are giving a more detailed -- and private -- account of their experiences.

The worst fear of some of the hostages, returnee Bruce W. German told reporters in Wiesbaden, was not knowing if their plight made a difference anymore to the American people or then-President Jimmy Carter.

"We wondered whether we had been forgotten," he said. Lack of basic trust in the world is common among hostages, say experts on terrorism.

Copies of Sporting News reached the captives and Mr. German recalls reading it "cover to cover," putting together bits and pieces to glean how hard hostage relatives in the United States were working to free the 52. Love for his wife, said MR. German, "has been my rock."

Richard Queen, who spent 250 days as a hostage and then was released due to an ailment, talks openly now of the "night of the Gestapo raid" last February:

"It was about 1 o'clock in the morning. Men with masks -- white masks -- came in. They were dressed in fatigues, combat boots, carrying weapons, automatic rifles, and they got us up, pushed us, and shoved us. They pushed us up against the wall and kicked our feet apart," he reports.

Then, the Iranian militants ordered everyone to lie on the floor. But Navy pilot Donald A. Sharer, reports Mr. Queen, responded: "You're gonna shoot me standing up, not lying down."

Guns clicked. The moment passed. And no shots came.

Hostage German commented: "We experienced total terror."

Other hostages also reported momentarily resisting their captors, such as refusing to be relocated to other sites. Patriotism, for some, seemed to sustain them through the stress of being victims of foreign terrorists.

Hostage Marine Sgt. James Michael Lopez wrote on his cell wall: "Viva la roja , blanco, y azul" -- Spanish for long live the red, white, and blue. He wrote in Spanish to prevent his captors' notice.

Louise Kennedy, wife of US Embassy officer Moorhead Kennedy Jr., said her husband's first letter last January showed he was "willing to accept this with serenity and die if necessary in the cause of the country."

"I hope that the hostages will dwell on some of the more positive aspects of what went on there, as well as the bad things," Mrs. Kennedy also said.

Despite moments of despair, such as learning of the aborted US rescue mission , Mr. German told reporters that there was "very little bitterness" among the ex-hostages. But hostage Malcolm Kalp, who spent 12 of the 14 1/2 months in solitary confinement, said he would like the United States to drop "$8 billion worth of bombs on Iran." He was beaten after an escape attempt.

In quieter days, some hostages had access to the embassy library in Tehran. Mr. Queen said he read about 500 books. The hostages quizzed each other on trivia. Hostage Jerry J. Miele told the Greensburg (Pa.) Tribune-Review that he was very depressed at the psychological harassment but drew spiritual strength from a book about missionaries in Ecuador.

Still unknown is how much Iranian propaganda thrown at the captives in the form of music and lectures was accepted.

After his release, Mr. German said: "We were sympathetic to their [the Iranian militants'] cause at first -- we thought their motives were sound. But they weren't students. . . . They were terrorists, pure and simple."

US officials who interviewed the returned hostages report no evidence of the "Stock- holm syndrome," a condition seen during a 1973 bank robbery incident in which hostages developed a close affinity with their captors.

The bad treatment, such a bound hands in the early days or occasional beatings, seemed haphazard -- perhaps a reflection of rivalries among the Iranian militants and their reaction to outside events, such as the US rescue effort.

Still, the hostages' mental attitudes were kept in "emergency mode," as experts on terrorism describe it, from the simple fact that they could neither fight nor flee. For the isolated ones, there were card games or silent dialogues with loved ones. Groups of hostages played Monopoly and made up nicknames for their captors, such as Two-Hat, for a guard who wore a cap with earlaps.

Lionizing the returnees -- such as the planned ticker-tape parade in New York City -- could prove traumatic, some hostage experts say, while the 52 Americans readjust to freedom.

The publicity, said Mr. German, is "overwhelming, because none of us are used to it."

"It's something we have to face, I'm afraid," he added. "It's the least we can do for what the American people have done for us -- their support, their prayers, and all of that."

QR Code to Home at last: hostages told a tale of abuse -- and survival
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today