Merrill Newman arrived at the San Francisco airport after turning down a ride aboard Vice President Joe Biden's Air Force Two in favor of a direct flight from Beijing. He emerged into the international terminal smiling, accompanied by his son Jeff and holding the hand of his wife Lee amid applause from supporters. He spoke briefly to the assembled media, declining to answer any questions or discuss his ordeal.
"I'm delighted to be home," said Newman. "I wanna thank the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang and the American Embassy in Beijing for all their help. It's been a great homecoming and I'm tired, but I'm ready to be with my family now. Thank you all for the support we got and very much appreciated."
Newman was detained in late October at the end of a 10-day trip to North Korea, a visit that came six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas during the 1950-53 war.
Reporters asked the 85-year-old to talk about his time in prison and explain what happened. But, seemingly overwhelmed by the attention, Newman declined to discuss the acts that prompted North Korean officials to detain him, or his treatment while in their custody.
Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. Analysts questioned whether the statement was coerced, and former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.
North Korean state media told ABC News that Newman was released because of his apology and because of his age and medical condition.
Barbara Ingram, a friend and neighbor of Newman's at the senior citizen complex where they live said residents broke into applause when news of Newman's release was announced Friday during lunch.
"A great cheer went up," Ingram said. "We are all so very relieved and grateful."
As airport security and state officials escorted Newman and his family out of the building and to a waiting car, we asked him what's the first thing he'll do when he makes it back home.
"I think, probably take my shoes off," he said with a laugh.
Neighbors tell me he's joining friends and family at their home in Santa Cruz to celebrate his safe return.
Before Newman, North Korea had detained at least six Americans since 2009; five of them have been either released or deported.
The country is still holding Kenneth Bae, who's been there now for more than a year. He's a Korean-American missionary from Washington state who has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He's accused of carrying a computer disk that contained pictures of starving orphans living in North Korea.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)