ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — More than 150 Americans, freed after four months of captivity in Iraq or as fugitives in Kuwait, came home Monday to a cheering, weeping welcome from family and friends.
Shouts of joy went up from the crowd gathered on the chilly, wind-whipped tarmac as a chartered jumbo jet touched down at sunset at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
"I asked Santa for Daddy for Christmas," read one hand-painted sign held by a small boy, who enlisted the help of the adult next to him to raise his message above the heads of a boisterous crowd of about 300 people.
Arriving from Frankfurt, Germany, where they spent the first night after their release Sunday, the former hostages--152 Americans and four Canadians--all looked exhausted as they filed onto a red-carpeted stairway and descended from the plane, clutching plastic shopping bags and small duffel bags crammed with clothing.
One woman was carried off the plane and taken to a wheelchair. Another carried her cat in a small cage. Many smiled and waved back at the crowd, and the first man to emerge from the plane paused and pointed his camera at the phalanx of television cameras shooting back at him.
But, heeding what appeared to be instructions from State Department officials, none of the former hostages stopped to talk to reporters. Bused to a gymnasium converted into a reception center on the air base, they held their family reunions in private before heading to their homes or to hotels to spend the night.
Although most chose not to speak with reporters, a few who did agree to talk after leaving the air base painted grim accounts of their lives in captivity and spoke with anger and bitterness--as well as a desire to see Iraq punished for its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
"What President Bush is doing is exactly correct. I'm in favor of Bush bombing (Iraq)," said Joseph Wallace, a 48-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh who spent nearly three months as a "human shield" at a chemical plant in Mosul in northern Iraq.
Jeff Sanislo, a businessman from Cleveland who spent four months evading Iraqi troops in Kuwait with the help of Kuwaiti resistance fighters, said he and three other Americans in his group avoided capture by changing apartments every four days.
"We were moved in the trunks of cars or in the back seats covered up with blankets. We owe our lives to the (Kuwaitis) who helped us. They are the real heroes in all of this," Sanislo said.
Sanislo, who suffers from a kidney disorder, said he was smuggled into a hospital by Kuwaiti resistance fighters and treated by doctors in a stairwell to avoid notice by the Iraqis.
"I owe them my life," he added.
Waiting anxiously in the crowd, with yellow balloons bobbing and American flags waving, was Scott Ledford, 19, whose father, Talmadge Ledford of Wyndham, N.H., spent several weeks as a human shield at an oil facility in southern Iraq.
"It's about time my dad came home," Ledford said. "My biggest fear was that the U.S. would attack while he was still over there."
Another former fugitive, Tom Justus of Wells, Nev., said he spent the entire four months hiding in his Kuwaiti apartment, pacing the floors and only occasionally sneaking out through an underground tunnel to visit friends in a nearby apartment.
"You never left your apartment except at night and then only through the tunnel," the 51-year-old engineer said. "You never answered the door, and we set up signals with other people in the building so we knew when they were coming."
Justus added that the Kuwaiti underground is still resisting the occupation, with the sounds of gunfire erupting in the streets every night.
"But they're outnumbered, and if they're caught, they're killed," he added.
Justus and other Americans who hid out in Kuwait said the Kuwaiti resistance had organized a network to protect foreigners from capture but that towards the end it became increasingly difficult to avoid detection, with Iraqi patrols searching the streets.
"I'm just glad it's finally over," said Justus' wife Sharon, who was among the crowd waiting on the tarmac. "It's been real hard. . . . Every minute has seemed like an hour."
Pressed up against a chain-link fence, the crowd broke into applause when the blue-and-white Pan American jumbo jet touched down at 5:38 p.m.
The State Department said 73 people remained behind in Frankfurt, either for medical treatment or because they wanted to make alternate arrangements to come home.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, preparations were under way for a final U.S.-chartered refugee airlift scheduled to leave today, bringing out virtually all the Americans still in Iraq and Kuwait, possibly including the last diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait city.