RICH SQUARE, N.C. – 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.
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, arrived in the United States last 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 farm town of 1,000 near the Virginia line had threatened to protest Jenkins’ visit, it was ultimately met with indifference.
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 woods on Jan. 15, 1965, many in Rich Square believed he’d been kidnapped. 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.
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