Comrade of American Held in N. Korea Recalls Friendship, Missions

(Reuters) -

In early 1953, Merrill Newman and Allen Hedges were among a small group of U.S. servicemen hunkered down on a tiny, frequently shelled island off the west coast of North Korea.

They had orders to never make the dangerous journey across the narrow strait of water onto the mainland. And so, Hedges said, they never did.

Why Newman felt compelled to set foot in North Korea more than 60 years after the end of the Korean War remains a baffling question to Hedges and several other surviving members of the U.S. Army 8240th Unit.

Newman, now an 85-year-old retired business executive living in California, was detained in late October while visiting North Korea on a tourist trip. The former first lieutenant has been held ever since. The North’s KCNA news agency said he was a mastermind of clandestine operations and accused him of killing civilians during the war.

“I can’t believe it,” Hedges said in a telephone interview from his home in Vanceburg, Kentucky. Hedges was not aware his former comrade had been detained until contacted by Reuters.

“If I know Newman, he went up there to do something good, because I know he’s a good man. His philosophy was we did good up there, we shortened the war and saved lives,” Hedges said on Monday.

The White House and the U.S. State Department have both called for Newman’s release, although Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations. North Korea allowed Swedish diplomats to visit him on Saturday.

Hedges said he was 19 or so when he and Newman arrived in early 1953 on Cho-Do, a few miles out into the Yellow Sea off the North Korean coast. Their mission was to train and coordinate a battalion of Korean anti-communist guerrillas called the 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment, Hedges said. This was one of the main functions of the 8240th Unit, according to published histories and accounts of other former members.

Hedges, now 80 years old, said he and Newman would dispatch teams of the guerrillas by boat to try and disrupt a North Korean coastal supply line.

A U.S. Army spokeswoman said she was unable to confirm the details of personnel and missions that pre-date 1999. The State Department said their records only date back to 1970.

Official documents at the National Archives in Washington D.C., along with various historians’ accounts, confirm the basics of the 8240th Unit’s deployment and its missions. They do not give specific details about the roles of Newman and Hedges.