TOKYO—Laying to rest one of the U.S. Army’s oldest desertion cases, a U.S. court martial in Japan has given Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins a 30-day sentence for abandoning his unit and crossing into communist North Korea nearly 40 years ago.
“It seems like a lifetime ago when it happened, even though I think about it every day… I just wanted to go home.”
In a one-day proceeding at Camp Zama, a U.S. military facility south of Tokyo, Jenkins admitted planning for 10 days in advance and ultimately leaving his unit before dawn on Jan. 5, 1965, out of fear.
“Ma’am, I am in fact guilty,” Jenkins told the judge, Col. Denise Vowell.
During the emotionally charged trial, Jenkins wept several times and said he had fled out of fear at having to patrol along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea—or, worse, possibly being sent to Vietnam.
“It seems like a lifetime ago when it happened, even though I think about it every day,” he said in a prepared statement. “I just wanted to go home.”
“I am sorry to the Army, and I am sorry to my family,” said Jenkins, looking frail at age 64.
Jenkins’s confession brought his unique desertion case to a close.
While the Army is still tracking down deserters from the 1940s, no deserter has ever turned himself in after such a long absence.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice allows for life in prison for desertion, but this court handed down a far lighter term of 30 days—along with a forfeit of all pay, demotion to the Army’s lowest rank, Private (E-1), and dishonourable discharge.
Jenkins began his 30-day jail term immediately following the trial at a U.S. naval detention facility near Tokyo.
He had struck a plea bargain with prosecutors before the trial. His Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 and married Jenkins in North Korea in 1980.
Soga’s plight has inspired widespread sympathy in Japan, and Tokyo has pressed for a legal settlement that would allow the couple and their two North-Korean born daughters to live together in Japan.