Could Korean War vet detained in North be paying for another man's past?
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Some 60 years ago, two men with the same name fought in the same war. They came home, worked hard, raised families.
One, 84-year-old Merrill H. Newman of Beaverton, Ore., a platoon leader who won a Silver Star for valor, has no desire to return to the battlefields of North Korea. The violent memories he has carried with him since the early 1950s as a second lieutenant in the Marines are too painful.
But the other, 85-year-old Merrill E. Newman of Palo Alto, Calif., last month fulfilled a lifelong desire to return to the place that had a profound impact on him as an Army infantry officer.
The yearning among war veterans to go back to the battlefields of their youth, to face demons or make amends, is a fiercely individual decision. It’s why one Merrill Newman is safe at home in Oregon wondering: Could the other Merrill Newman be paying for another man’s past?
The night before the Palo Alto Newman was set to fly home to California with a buddy from his retirement home, North Korean officials questioned him about his military service, an interview that Newman’s son said left his father unnerved. The next day, the officials boarded an airliner for Beijing minutes before takeoff and escorted him off the plane.
On Friday, North Korean officials finally acknowledged they have Newman in custody — a sign that experts say could mean an impending resolution. But still, the government of the totalitarian regime gave no explanation for his detention. The only red flag, sources say, is that Newman may have asked his North Korean guides to take him to off-the-beaten-path places where he remembers fighting six decades ago, a request that might have raised suspicions.
Newman’s case raises many troubling questions, few that can be answered by U.S. officials or his family, who are desperate for his homecoming. But one can’t help but wonder whether Korean officials, like some of the residents of Newman’s 10-story retirement complex in Palo Alto, mistakenly believed he had earned the Silver Star for his service there. In fact, it was the other Merrill Newman from Oregon whose award of bravery is easily found with a Web search. As a 23-year-old platoon leader, he was described as “launching a series of highly coordinated attacks which inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy.”
The Newman who is safe at home found the coincidence bizarre.
“The thought sure struck through my brain that that could have happened,” he said of a possible mistaken identity. “But even so, this guy was an infantry officer and he was doing what we do, what we got paid to do, whether he won a Silver Star or not.”
Before news broke of the Palo Alto Newman’s detention, the two Newmans had never crossed paths, neither on the battlefield nor through lost letters or notices from the IRS.
At this point, Newman’s family in California doesn’t know where he is or whether the heart medication they sent to the Swedish Embassy there made it to him. His wife, Lee Newman, said she has no word on his health or why he was detained. All they have are postcards that recently arrived from his 10-day visit, describing good times, good weather and knowledgeable guides.
“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding,” she said Friday in her first public comments.
From the little that is known, Newman’s detention appears to have something to do with military service.
“It could range anywhere from the North Koreans misunderstanding something he said or a paranoid response,” said Dan Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “It has to be more than just that he served or fought. People like that have been there before. They didn’t go around arresting all those people. Maybe he was engaged in some kind of battle that was important.”
Unlike the World War II cemeteries of Normandy, France, or the battlefields and jungles of Vietnam where scores of veterans are now greeted warmly every year, the United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. It is technically still in a state of war some 60 years later. The two countries are operating under an armistice, a cease-fire in a war that’s never been settled by a treaty.
For the most part, tourists and war veterans have been visiting North Korea for years. With proper travel documents, Newman and his traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, booked their Oct. 17-27 tour through Juche Travel Services, a tour company based near London. The tour through the country, however, was handled by state-run Korea International Travel Company, which provides escorts to accompany Western tourists at all times.
Just last summer, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran from Massachusetts was given permission to return to look for the remains of a Navy aviator, one of 7,910 Americans still missing in action there. Monsoons prevented the search, and the veteran went home without answers.
But some have been detained, including two American journalists whom Bill Clinton helped free in 2009 and an American missionary who is serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor for “hostile acts.”
“Usually people fall into their arms in one way or another and are used for leverage to get attention from the U.S.,” Sneider said.
The call to return to the battlefield is one heeded by many veterans through the ages. An organization called “Friendship Village” coordinates trips for Vietnam Veterans.
Paul Cox, 65, a civil engineer in Berkeley, Calif., who served in Vietnam in 1969-70, has returned three times in the past four years.
“The war in Vietnam was the defining point in my life,” he said. “There’s a lot of unresolved grief and obsession about the war. I think a lot of veterans need to revisit the battleground if it’s possible in order to work through it. That was certainly the case for me.”
Cox suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is part of a campaign to help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
“I can’t bring back the dead. I can’t rebuild a hospital or village we wiped out,” he said. “But this is an effort that could result in helping a lot of people in Vietnam.”
Charley Trujillo of San Jose, Calif., a 64-year-old Vietnam vet who lost his right eye in a grenade explosion, has wanted to return for a decade but hasn’t yet.
“When we were young, you could put it under the rug. But as you get older, you start reflecting more, and you want to resolve things in your mind,” he said. “You just want to be at ease, at peace somehow.”
Trujillo has even considered moving to Vietnam for a year or two. “I feel that I’m kind of part of that land because I fought in the war,” he said.
Newman’s son said his father rarely talked about his service in North Korea, but he knew of his father’s desire to return to the place that had a “profound, powerful” impact on him. The elder Newman earned a masters degree from Stanford, raised his two children, spent most of his career as a finance executive for tech companies, and volunteered for the Red Cross. His wife asked the North Korean government to “return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, Merrill Newman in Oregon said he can’t help but think of his namesake imprisoned in North Korea. He never had a desire to go back.
“I have a feeling of responsibility for all the guys I lost in my platoon,” he said.
He doesn’t believe he deserved the Silver Star any more than his fellow Marines, especially the ones who lost their lives. It hangs on his wall, next to plaques commending his time as president of his college fraternity and vice president of a tug boat company.
When his four children were grown and asked about his medal, he told them about the hill north of Seoul he and his platoon fought for on May 9, 1952, against the Chinese who were helping the North Koreans. Of his 75 men, seven were killed and 40 wounded.
“It brings back a lot of memories,’’ he said, “I’d just as soon file away.”