The military records of Merrill Newman confirm that the 85-year-old Korean War veteran served in a special forces unit that advised Korean partisans who fought in North Korea behind enemy lines.
Newman has been held by North Korean authorities since Oct. 26 when he was taken off an airliner that was to take him to South Korea. He had just ended a two-week trip to North Korea.
This past weekend, Newman was seen in a videotape reading from an apology where he cited his role in the Korean War as an adviser to a Korean partisan unit.
Newman said in the apology that during his trip to North Korea he had wanted to meet with former members of the unit he had worked with. At the time of the video’s release, U.S. officials could not confirm his wartime role.
Newman’s records were provided to ABC News as part of a request filed last week with the National Personnel Records Center, which is a part of the National Archives that houses the military records of America’s veterans.
According to the military records, Newman began his Army service in September 1950 and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant a year later. After various stateside assignments, Newman received an officer’s commission as a second lieutenant on April 27, 1952, after attending officer candidate school.
According to the records, Newman arrived in Korea on Feb. 7, 1953, and began the first of two tours as an “infantry unit commander.”
The unit he was assigned to is described as “FEC/LD(K) 8240 AU FECOM.” Those acronyms stand for Far East Command Liaison Detachment (Korea) 8240 Army Unit Far East Command. The U.S. Far East Command was the U.S. military command for the Asia- Pacific region that at the start of the Korean War was headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Shortly after the war began in June 1950, Far East Command began a secret guerrilla campaign behind enemy lines in North Korea using thousands of Korean fighters opposed to the communist regime in North Korea.
Unit 8240 AU was one of those Korean partisan units that were headed by junior American officers who served in leadership and advisory roles.
Histories of the operation indicate that for the most part the units were trained on islands off the western coast of North Korea, and the American advisers did not fight behind enemy lines with the partisans.
The existence of these units was not declassified until the 1990s.
Newman’s service with the unit ended on Sept. 14, 1953, two months after the July armistice that ended three years of war on the Korean peninsula.
In the final months of the war, Newman stayed mainly on a front-line island, living in a small wooden house, said Park Young, an 81-year-old former guerrilla.
“He ate alone and slept alone and lived alone,” said Park, one of 200 guerrillas stationed on the Island.
On Tuesday The Associated Press interviewed South Korean members of the 8240 AU unit that had served with Newman. They described their unit as one of the most hated and feared by North Korea and speculated that that was the reason for his detention.
Referring to the “Kuwol” moniker by which the group is still known in North and South Korea, Park Boo Seo told The Associated Press “the North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit.”
The former fighters interviewed by The Associated Press describe Newman “as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war but largely left the fighting to them.”
Some of these elderly former guerrillas say they were waiting for Newman at the Incheon International Airport expecting his arrival after his trip to North Korea.