CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Free for the first time in nearly four decades, U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins (search) sobbed with joy as he was released from a military jail on Saturday after serving 25 days for abandoning his squadron and crossing the border into North Korea in 1965.
The frail 64-year-old, still in uniform and carrying a heavy duffel bag, broke down in tears after arriving at this U.S. Army base, where he was flown by Blackhawk helicopter after completing his sentence at a nearby naval prison.
When asked how he felt, he told The Associated Press he was "happy," and then sobbed for several moments.
"Forty years is a long time," he said.
The release ends the longest desertion case on U.S. record. American deserters from the 1940s are still on the military's wanted list, but not one has turned himself in.
Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, N.C., testified in his Nov. 3 court-martial that he fled his Army post in South Korea (search) on Jan. 5, 1965, because he had heard rumors that he was to be reassigned to combat in Vietnam (search). He said he didn't intend to stay in the North — instead, he had planned to defect to the Soviet Embassy there and eventually make his way back to the United States.
The communist regime in Pyongyang, however, kept him for 39 years, along with three other American deserters.
Jenkins was joined here later Saturday by his Japanese wife and two daughters, both born in North Korea. He was expected to stay on this base just south of Tokyo for about a week while officials complete paperwork to process him out of the military, before moving to his wife's hometown on Sado island in northern Japan.
"My plan is to stay in Japan, if they will accept me," he said. "I want to go back to the United States, but only once. With my wife, I'll live in Japan, with my family."
Jenkins has said that North Korea used him as a propaganda tool in broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and that he was forced to teach English to North Korean military officer cadets.
Two of the other three Americans have since died, but the third, James Dresnock of Richmond, Va., still lives in the North. Dresnock was a private when he crossed into North Korea in 1962.
During his court-martial, Jenkins described a harsh existence.
"We slept on the floor, there was most often no electricity and we had no running water," he testified. "We were allowed to bathe once a month, though in the summer we bathed more often in the river."
Jenkins said they were forced to study — in Korean — the philosophy of then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung for 10 hours a day. If they didn't memorize enough, they were forced to study 16 hours on Sunday, their only day off.
"I longed to leave that place every day," Jenkins told the court.
A turning point came in 1980, when he met and married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 to teach Japanese language and culture to its spies.
The marriage was what got Jenkins his freedom.
At an unprecedented summit in 2002 with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country had kidnapped Soga and several other Japanese and allowed her and the four other survivors to return home.
Jenkins initially stayed behind, but Soga's effort to reunite her family generated great sympathy in Japan. In July, Tokyo arranged for Jenkins and his two North Korea-born daughters to join Soga in Jakarta, Indonesia.
They were then flown back to Japan, ostensibly because he needed emergency medical care for an abdominal problem.
Jenkins was discharged from a Tokyo hospital on Sept. 11 and immediately turned himself in to American authorities at Camp Zama, the U.S. Army's Japan headquarters. In a plea bargain, he was sentenced to a month in prison.
He was released five days early for good behavior.
Though he is now a free man, Jenkins will still not be completely separated from the Army; until his automatic appeal process is completed, he could remain on "involuntary excess leave" status for one to two years.
"We're very happy that he's out and free," said Jenkins' brother-in-law, Lee Harrell, in Weldon, N.C. Harrell, who is married to Jenkins' younger sister Pat, said the family would welcome a visit from him to the United States.