Image: Jenkins
Karen Tam  /  AP
A photo of Charles Robert Jenkins and a helmet liner he wore when he served in the National Guard rests in a storefront display in his hometown of Rich Square, N.C. Jenkins, who deserted his Army unit 40 years ago and fled to North Korea, is returning home this week for the first time.
updated 6/13/2005 4:46:32 PM ET 2005-06-13T20:46:32

Despite its pacifist Quaker beginnings, this soybean farming community is not shy about celebrating its military history. Bracketing the two-stoplight town are iron plaques honoring the Army colonel who guided the first automated aircraft landing and the general who led Marines in the first Gulf War.

There was a time when some could have imagined a similar honor for Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who as a freckle-faced, jug-eared boy stitched soldier patches from Kellogg's Cornflakes boxes onto his clothes, prowled the woods with his BB gun for "commies" and lied about his age to join the National Guard.

But any hope of that died 40 years ago, when he deserted his post and slipped across the snowy border into communist North Korea.

This week, a stooped Jenkins is returning home for the first time since his desertion in 1965. He wants to see his 91-year-old mother before she dies, to introduce her to his Japanese wife and two daughters. And after four decades in exile, he wants to touch his native soil one last time before leaving, perhaps forever.

But the 65-year-old Jenkins should not expect a warm welcome from his hometown. For some in this struggling crossroads of 1,000, the long years have done little to dull the sting of his betrayal.

"I would have liked to have seen him lined up and shot like a traitor. I don't care how old he is. He still did it," says Vera Outland, who had considered lining Main Street with protest signs for Jenkins' return.

In the end, she decided he wasn't worth the trouble.

‘He was a coward’
"If you ask me, he was a coward," says retired Army Col. Earl Daniels, who went to school with Jenkins and served a combat tour in Vietnam. "I hope I don't meet him on the street, tell you the truth, because I don't know how I would react."

Others in Rich Square are more charitable. To them, the idea that Jenkins lived more than half his life under a repressive, totalitarian regime seems punishment enough. And if he wants to come home to visit his mother, or even to live, he should be allowed to do so in peace.

"You know the old Indian proverb: `Never judge a man till you've walked a mile in his moccasins,'" says Joe Vick, who served in the Coast Guard in World War II. "I don't know what the man went through. None of us do."

Michael Cooke has fond childhood memories of fighting off imaginary communist hordes with Jenkins, a skinny boy with a lisp whose strength earned him the nickname "Super."

"We feared them and we hated them," says Cooke, who went on to serve as a lieutenant with an infantry unit in Vietnam. "They wanted to destroy our system and our freedom."

When Jenkins disappeared into the woods on patrol in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 15, 1965, many in Rich Square believed he had been kidnapped. Even when the Army confirmed two weeks later that he had defected, some believed there had to be more to the story, that he was somehow coerced.

"He was gung-ho," says Lonnie Best, an Army veteran of the Korean War whose pet theory was that the Koreans had lured Jenkins over with a pretty female agent. "He's the last one I thought would do something like he did."

Even after Jenkins began appearing in North Korean anti-American propaganda films, Cooke could not fully accept that his friend had deserted his country.

"I was always hoping, 'Well, maybe they're holding a gun to his head off camera and making him do this stuff,'" says Cooke, now retired and living in Raleigh.

Then, late last year, they learned the truth from Jenkins' own mouth: He defected because he was afraid of being sent to Vietnam.

Jenkins says that he learned soon after his defection that he had made a mistake, and that he even tried to escape in 1966. He has told a tale of deprivation, isolation and forced labor.

In 1980, Jenkins married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman kidnapped by the North Koreans and forced to teach her language to the communist country's citizens. The couple had two daughters.

Largely forgotten over the years, Jenkins' story resurfaced in 2002, when Soga and other abducted Japanese were allowed to return home. The family was reunited in Japan last July.

A guilty plea
Last September, after a politically charged debate over what should be done with this Cold War orphan, Jenkins surrendered himself with a salute at a U.S. Army base in Japan. He pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, and was sentenced to 30 days in a military jail.

For some in Rich Square, the government's handling of Jenkins' case is the most painful part of the saga.

"Thirty days in jail? That's ridiculous," says Claudine's Restaurant customer Steve Pruden, swallowing hard as if to keep down his lunch of chicken salad and hush puppies. "I don't want him here."

Pumping gas at the Red Apple convenient store down the street, Air Force veteran Tom Ferguson wonders what kind of message Jenkins' punishment sends to the troops fighting now in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I was afraid of being sent to Vietnam, too, but I didn't desert," he says. "I could've gone just as easily."

But Gerald Smith, a distant cousin of Jenkins' who was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served two years, says what's past is past.

"I'm sure he's seen quite a few days in those 40 years he's said to himself, `I made the wrong step,'" says Smith, clad in a POW-MIA hat topped with an American flag pin. "I think he should be able to live out the rest of his days in peace and enjoy his life."

As far as Cooke is concerned, his old playmate has punished himself far worse than any military tribunal could have.

"I feel sad for him," he says. "He's kind of like a man without a country."

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