WELDON, N.C. – Charles Jenkins (search), who deserted his U.S. Army unit and crossed into North Korea in 1965, arrived Tuesday in the United States for his first visit in 40 years.
A smiling, gray-haired Jenkins, 65, stood arm-in-arm with his frail, 91-year-old mother, Pattie, on the front porch of his sister's home in this community 30 miles northwest of his hometown, Rich Square (search).
He was accompanied by his Japanese wife and two daughters.
"I feel very happy," Jenkins said to about four dozen people, mostly media, gathered outside the home. "Thank you very much for coming, especially some of you who came all the way from Japan."
Jenkins pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy during his court-martial and spent 25 days in a U.S. military jail in Japan last year. He said he deserted because he was afraid of being sent to Vietnam and has called his action a mistake.
Many in Rich Square had believed the then-25-year-old sergeant was kidnapped or coerced when he disappeared while on patrol along the Demilitarized Zone (search) that divides the two Koreas.
Some had said they were considering protesting his return.
But no one protested Jenkins' visit to Welton, which was decked out in its patriotic best with flags flying from most downtown street lamps for Flag Day. Police officers stood in front of the family's house to keep the media away.
Few people in Weldon knew he was coming until the television trucks arrived, and residents disagreed about his presence.
"The thing to do is let bygones be bygones," said Gus Brown, who runs a downtown service station. "The man done an honorable thing. He went to the government ... and said, 'Here I am' and took whatever punishment they were going to give him."
But 78-year-old Willie Ancarrow, a World War II veteran who was at the Veterans of Foreign War Post 3702 in nearby Roanoke Rapids, said the government should not even have allowed Jenkins' entry into the country. "He went over there on his own — they should have left him over there on his own. ... He let the country down."
Jenkins and his family plan to return to Japan on June 22.
Jenkins traveled to Japan last July to be with his wife, Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 but allowed to return home in 2002. The couple met in North Korea and had two daughters.
Public sympathy for Soga, who was abducted by spies when she was only 19, helped make her family's resettlement from North Korea to Japan a national cause. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi personally appealed to Pyongyang to allow Jenkins and their daughters to follow Soga to Japan, where they have settled.
Jenkins is working on an autobiography.