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Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick

Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea

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BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
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It all started going wrong within a month or two, however, when I got asked to lead what were known around camp as hunter killer teams. These were far more dangerous and aggressive daytime patrols than the routine nighttime ambush patrols. They often came under hostile fire because they were so much easier for the North Koreans to spot. While I was happy to guard the DMZ and even defend it with my life if it were attacked, these purposely provocative missions were not what I signed up for, nor did I feel they were in keeping with the unit’s stated mission. But since these patrols had an air of secrecy about them, I did not know from how high up they were being ordered, which ruled out my initial idea of appealing to a higher officer to get them stopped or at least to get me out of leading them. I kept denying the increasingly insistent requests throughout November and December, but I began to panic because I was sensing that these requests to lead hunter killer teams were soon going to become an order, something, as a soldier, I could not disobey.

A week or so before Christmas, I got a call patched through to my guard post. So I got on the phone, saying, “This is Sgt. Jenkins.” And he said, “Sgt. Jenkins.” And I said, “Yes, this is Sgt. Jenkins.” And he said, “No, this is Sgt. Jenkins.” By now I knew who it was, and I said, “This is all really funny, but I am on duty. I have a job to do.” It was a guy named Joseph T. Jenkins. He was a distant cousin of mine from Woodland, North Carolina, about six miles from Rich Square. Woodland was a small town with an even smaller town, called George, about a mile down the road from it. George was the home of a basket factory and a casket factory and nothing else. Whenever we went to see J. T., as we called him, we would say we were going to “Woodland, by George!” That really cracked us up at the time. Nowadays, he was a master sergeant at I Corps in an administrative unit in Uijongbu, which was about halfway between Camp Clinch and Seoul. He told me not to get upset and that he was just calling to say he was going to come and visit me in a few days.

A couple days later, just before Christmas, J. T. came to visit. He didn’t stay more than a few hours, but we talked about the old neighborhoods, people we knew, girls we had dated, and girls we missed. As he was leaving, he told me that the 1st Cavalry, my division, was scheduled to go to Vietnam. In early 1965 Vietnam wasn’t a war involving a lot of U.S. soldiers yet, but it looked like it was headed that way, and J. T. told me the 1st Cavalry was going to be one of the first army units to go if it came to that, probably as soon as the spring. He told me to keep it secret, but a couple of people overheard him and the rumor swept through camp. This news only added to my worry and depression. If I managed to survive the hunter killer teams, I would be faced with potentially shipping out to a new and even more dangerous war in the jungle within a few months. (I did not know it at the time, but the 1st Cavalry that wound up shipping to Vietnam was completely transformed and refitted into a helicopter unit before being redeployed, meaning that almost none of the 1st Cavalry personnel in South Korea with me went directly to Vietnam, if they went at all. Most were just reassigned to the new unit that took over jurisdiction of that area of the DMZ. I was, of course, already in North Korea by the time this happened, so I only learned about it upon my return.)

I started looking for a way out. If I got an order to lead a hunter killer team and refused, I knew I faced a court-martial on the spot. Add the additional fear of going to war in the jungle if I survived the hunter killer teams, and it seemed to me that I was doomed. I started to feel depressed and drink heavily. After weeks of private deliberation, I came up with a plan. I was cold, tired, scared, depressed, and miserable. The pain and the pressure had gotten to be too much to bear, and all I wanted was out. I know I was not thinking clearly at the time, and a lot of my decisions don’t make sense now, but at the time they had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable.

Rather than turn myself in at Camp Clinch and face what I thought would be a much harsher on-the-spot court-martial, I decided that the only thing to do was go AWOL, lay low for a little while, and turn myself in back in the States. But I knew there was no way off the peninsula if I headed into South Korea—I had heard too many stories of servicemen who went AWOL getting picked up almost immediately to think that that direction could be successful. So I decided that I was going to walk north across the DMZ and into North Korea. Once there, I would ask to be handed over to the Russians and request a diplomatic exchange for passage back to the United States, where I would face charges for desertion. I had heard of this happening before. Some American soldiers in West Germany, I knew from the time I was there, had deserted to East Germany, and they got handed over to the Russians, and the Soviet Union ultimately sent them back to the States. I did not understand at the time that North Korea was not particularly close diplomatically to the Soviet Union. It certainly did not see the Soviet Union (or even China, for that matter) as its big brother and wasn’t going to be handing anybody over to anyone. To us, at the time, it was all “the Communist Bloc,” and we thought Moscow was the center of it, so I did not think my scheme was as crazy or unbelievable as people today sometimes seem to think it is. Obviously, it didn’t turn out at all the way that I intended, but that was the plan.

In short, I went AWOL for many of the same reasons that thousands of young, desperate, misguided soldiers go AWOL every year, not because I was a communist sympathizer or because I had any affection for or intention of defecting to North Korea. I am not trying to excuse my desertion, which is a despicable crime, or the fact that I abandoned men under my command, which is absolutely one of the worst things a leader can do. But I am trying to explain that I still feel my biggest mistake was the way I went AWOL. I was so ignorant. I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never, ever get out.

I came to my final conclusion just after Christmas day 1964. The next time I pulled a nighttime patrol, I said to myself, “I am crossing the DMZ.” The night I next pulled duty was about two weeks later, a dawn patrol that would begin the night of January 4, 1965, and extend into the next morning. That night, I bought two six packs of beer after dinner and went back to my quarters. I think I gave two cans away, but before patrol I drank the remaining ten myself. As I was drinking, I decided to give some of my stuff away. I scribbled a note to Sgt. Caine telling him he could have my field jacket. Then I wrote a note to a Republic of Korea Army soldier in our company, telling him he could have my gas mask. After I thought about it a little while, I wrote another note to Sgt. Caine, telling him he could have my wall locker lock also. These notes didn’t refer at all to my plans, in case someone found them before I actually left. All they said was, “You can have this gas mask” or “You can have this field jacket,” and I left them on their footlockers. I took a set of my best buttons, ones that never needed polishing that I had bought in Germany, from my dress uniform and gave them to another soldier. When he asked why I didn’t need them anymore, I just said that my cousin at I Corps in Uijongbu had gotten me out of this place. Though I no longer remember that soldier’s name, I will never forget his response: “Can your cousin get me out of here, too?”

One of the biggest mysteries of my crossing over and one I hope someone can solve someday is the issue of the letter that I supposedly wrote to my mother. Not long after I left for North Korea, I discovered after my return to the outside world in 2004, my mother received a telegram from the U.S. Army informing her that I had written a letter to her telling her the night I disappeared that I planned to leave for North Korea. I am here to say now that I never wrote the letter to my mother that the army said I did. (Many in my family never believed it anyhow. The biggest tip-off: The telegram said I signed the letter “Charles,” a name I never used for myself.) Today the army says it cannot find this letter; nor can it find the notes to the soldiers in my company that I actually did write.

These days, I often wonder what the purpose of that telegram was and who ordered it sent. My own theory on how it came about is this: When I went missing, the United States had a dilemma on its hands. If I was kidnapped by the North Koreans, the U.S. Army was duty-bound to do everything it could to get me back, even if it became an international incident that threatened to turn into shooting hostilities. If I had walked, however, the United States could safely avoid the whole sticky, political issue of my rescue. But the United States didn’t know which was the truth. North Korea officials could be counted on to insist that I was there voluntarily, but the United States lacked the proof to be able to either agree or contradict them. The notes I left the soldiers suggested I was walking, but they didn’t quite settle the matter for good. So the army invented a note that did. The United States, of course, happened to pick the correct and, for them, safer theory about my disappearance. I did indeed walk of my own free will. But in the U.S. Army’s zeal to cement the issue beyond a doubt, I believe someone, somewhere along the line, decided to fabricate some evidence.

At about 11:00 p.m., I reported for duty to my lieutenant. Either he had no idea I was drunk or decided to look the other way, because he didn’t say anything. I mustered my soldiers, and we hiked about two miles toward the 38th parallel and stopped on the crest of a hill. From our position, we could clearly see Tedach-san, a mountain in North Korea. As was standard, I led my soldiers into ambush position and then radioed in my position once an hour to headquarters. We stayed hunkered down like this, miserable in the bitter cold, for about two and a half hours. It was near freezing that night. After my radioman had radioed in the second time, I told both the radioman and another soldier close to me that I was going to go ahead and check to see if the road below was clear. I told them that if the road was clear, I would start the squad back to camp.

I took out my little compass and walked slowly away from my men and the U.S. Army. Even at that time, I thought there was a chance I might turn back. I knew that I could be gone for a while, and if I lost my will, I could come back. I could say it took me longer to check out the road than I thought. Even with the notes and giving away my buttons, I knew I hadn’t done anything that couldn’t be undone. But about ten or fifteen minutes into my walk, I fell over a sloped ledge. It was probably fifteen or twenty feet I went sliding down. A branch tore up my face, especially my nose, something fierce on the way down, so I tried to stop the bleeding with pressure from my hand the best I could. But as I looked up and saw there was no easy way back up that cliff, I took it as a sign. It was then that I decided for good. There was no way I was going back. I threw away my distress flare then to ensure I didn’t lose my nerve and send for help later.

I walked slowly in that early morning because it was dark and there were mine fields everywhere. I did what we called “night walk”—high, slow, deliberate steps designed not to hit a trip wire and set off a mine. At one point I saw a water-filled bomb crater topped over with ice. I chanced it that the ice was solid, but I was wrong and fell waist-deep into the muddy, cold water. I jumped to grab a root growing out of the side of the crater, pulled myself out, and kept going. Strangely, I didn’t get much colder, because my pant legs froze almost instantly into hard cylinders that didn’t touch my legs.

It was easy to get disoriented in the dark. At one point, as the sun came up, I looked at my compass again and realized I had been traveling almost an hour in the wrong direction and had to reverse course. I still had my M-14 rifle with me, but I had tied a white T-shirt I brought just for this purpose around the muzzle, to signal to anyone who saw me that I had no intention of shooting. (I found out later, however, that the North Koreans didn’t even know what this signal meant.) I had also taken all the ammunition out of my rifle and put it in my ammo pouch, so that I could not be accused of crossing into North Korea with hostile intentions, thereby causing more trouble for the Americans I had left behind.

I have always felt bad, and continue to feel bad, about abandoning those men under my command. To abandon your troops is about the worst thing a military leader, which is what I was supposed to be, can do. Those soldiers, I knew, would stay on that hill, freezing, until dawn and after, waiting for me to return. There is no doubt that January 5, 1965, was a time when I gave in to the very worst side of myself, when I attempted to run from all of my problems rather than confront them head-on like a man and a soldier. I let my men down, I let the U.S. Army down, I let the American people down, and I made it very difficult for my family in the United States to live a normal life, with the cloud of my actions hanging over them for so long. Over the next forty years, during the hell I often had to suffer in North Korea, I had a lot of time to think about my actions, and I apologized to those men, the American people, and my family a multitude of times in my thoughts. But now that I am able to do so in a way that maybe some of them can finally hear, I would like to say I am sorry to all of them again now. I don’t know if any of them will accept my apology—I imagine some will and some won’t—but I offer it anyway.

Not long after daylight, I saw a North Korean soldier behind a chest-high guard post on the other side of a ten-foot barbed and electrified wire fence. The winter wind was blowing so hard from the south that he had turned his back to the border and could not see me coming. I yelled out to him. When he turned, his eyes widened in that bug-eyed way you usually only see in cartoons. He must have pushed a silent alarm because although he did not say a word, eight or ten soldiers came running within seconds from a small house about fifty yards away over to a large gate that was just ten or so yards from the guard post. There was a brief moment of humor in even this, the most terrifying moment of my life, when the soldiers had to go running back to the house because they had forgotten the gate’s key. Finally, they all came out and circled me with their rifles drawn. Though I was scared, I knew in that moment that at least they weren’t going to kill me. How did I know? Since they were in a circle, if one fired, the bullet would go through me and likely hit one of his comrades, too. In a matter of moments, they had grabbed me by the arms and took me into that small house. My life, as I had known it for twenty-four years, was over.

BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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