Image: Charles Jenkins
Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Charles Jenkins, a U.S. soldier who deserted his army unit 40 years ago and fled to North Korea, holds onto his 91-year-old mother, Patty Casper, at his sister's home in Weldon, N.C., on Tuesday. At left is his wife, Hitomi Soga.
updated 6/15/2005 2:49:35 PM ET 2005-06-15T18:49:35

Army deserter Charles Jenkins returned to his hometown and visited his father's gravesite Wednesday for the first time since he defected to communist North Korea more than 40 years ago.

Jenkins, accompanied by his Japanese wife and their two daughters, placed a clear vase of pink and white lilies at the simple, granite gravestone of his father, Clifford, who died 15 years before his son crossed the Demilitarized Zone in 1965.

Placing their hands on their thighs, the 65-year-old Jenkins and his family bowed deeply at the waist Japanese-style, then spoke quietly among themselves.

Jenkins, who resurfaced a year ago after nearly four decades in North Korea, had arrived in the United States on Tuesday.

A caravan of a dozen police and media vehicles followed the family as it went on a tour of the town Jenkins hadn't seen since he came home on leave in 1964. It drove past his childhood house, where Jenkins as a young boy played Army and hunted imaginary "commies" with his BB gun amid the piney woods and cotton fields.

While some in this struggling farm town of 1,000 near the Virginia line had threatened to protest Jenkins' visit, it was ultimately met with indifference.

Faded memories
About a dozen people stood in the doorways of downtown shops as Jenkins and his family peered through the windows of the "Rich Square Hall of Fame," which contains his green Army National Guard helmet and a picture of a freckle-faced, jug-eared young Army sergeant in his military khakis.

Jenkins leaned into the window with a miniature video camera and pointed out a picture of Gen. Walter Boomer, who led Marines during the first Gulf War.

"I know a lot of them," Jenkins said as he stared at a collage of local military men, including an Army sergeant who died in action in Vietnam — the war Jenkins says he defected to avoid.

Asked how he felt being back in his hometown, Jenkins turned toward the reporters crowding around him and said, "Harassed."

When Jenkins disappeared into the snowy woods in the early morning of Jan. 15, 1965, many in Rich Square believed he had been kidnapped and they were unwilling to believe he had defected. But the reality hit hard in the ensuing years, when Jenkins began showing up in North Korean anti-American propaganda films.

In 1980, Jenkins married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman kidnapped by the North Koreans when she was only 19 and forced to teach her language to the communist country's citizens. They met in North Korea.

Jenkins' story resurfaced in 2002, when Soga and other abducted Japanese were allowed to return home.

Last September, 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.

Jenkins planned to spend a week visiting with his 91-year-old mother and other relatives he hasn't seen since his defection. He said he has no plans to stay in the United States and will return to the remote Japanese exile island where he and his wife have been living.

Jenkins, wearing a linen shirt and baggy beige trousers, was accompanied on his tour by a Japanese film crew and an author who is reportedly working on a book about his life.

"I don't have any bad feeling towards him," said Ernest Branch, an 88-year-old World War II Army veteran who watched the spectacle from the doorway of the Trust Worthy Hardware Store. "He did wrong, I think, but that's all in the past now."

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