Fear is a powerful emotion. It can leave a person paralyzed and incapable of any action. Fear can also motivate someone to do the very thing they never dreamed they’d be able to.
In 1965, one American soldier was so terrified that he would die before making it home, that he resorted to doing the one thing that he and all other soldiers were taught never to do…
On February 18, 1940, Charles Robert Jenkins was born in Rich Square, North Carolina. After his alcoholic father died when Charles was just 11 years old, his now single mother was left to feed and care for him and his six siblings all on her own.
Charles’ mother worked as a nurse but still struggled to look after all her children on her own. So when Charles approached her and asked if she would let him join the National Guard in 1955, she agreed to forge a document so he could join at 16 years old, which was a year younger than the minimum enlistment age…
Joining The Army
Three years later in 1958, Charles joined the United States Army and was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division. In 1960, the young soldier was sent to South Korea and served there for a year before he was sent to West Germany from 1962 to 1964.
After his time in Germany, Charles was sent back to South Korea, where he was assigned to night patrol. One cold January night in 1965, Charles was working on patrol like most other nights. What he did next, however, would change his life forever…
Fearing The Worst
Charles had started to fear that he would die while on duty in South Korea or Vietnam, which he was sure he would be sent to next. While on duty that night, he started thinking of ways he could be dishonorably discharged so he would be sent back home.
Charles came up with a plan to cross over into North Korea and then seek asylum in the Soviet Union. At some point, he would be sent back to the United States where he would happily face whatever charges were brought against him for desertion.
One Drunken Night
“It was Christmas time, it was also cold and dark. I started to drink alcohol. I never had drunk so much alcohol,” Charles said about what happened the night that changed everything. After drinking 10 beers, Charles went out with his men on patrol.
Charles told his unit to wait behind while he checked out the road below. Instead of checking the road, Charles tied a white shirt around his gun and walked towards North Korea. But shortly after entering the communist country, he realized he made a huge mistake…
A Huge Mistake
Charles had planned to go straight to the Soviet Union, but North Korea decided to keep him. “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,” Charles explained.
Once in North Korea, Charles surrendered and was introduced to 3 other American soldiers who had also deserted their unit. “We were all young, dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds who wouldn’t have had anything if it weren’t for the army, but then we threw that away too by running away,” Charles said…
Shortly after arriving in North Korea, Charles was taken to a hospital so that a doctor could cut out his U.S. Army tattoo on his arm without anesthesia. He was also warned that he would be killed if he ever criticized the government or the ruling family.
Charles was forced to teach English at North Korea’s military schools and later was forced to act in propaganda films, which kept him from being as horribly abused as others were. “But still, I suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead,” Charles said…
Something To Live For
But Charles finally found something to live for when he met Hitomi Soga, a young Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Koreans while walking with her mom near their home on Sado Island, a small island off the west coast of Japan.
Charles had been assigned to teach Hitomi English, but he felt an instant connection with another outsider. The first night they met, Charles and Hitomi stayed up talking late into the night. “We were very lonely in a world where we both were total outsiders,” Charles said…
Falling In Love
Soon after their first meeting, Charles, who was 40 years old by that point, fell in love with Hitomi and proposed to her almost every day until she finally said yes. 35 days after they met, Charles married Hitomi, who was just 21 years old.
For the next 2 decades, Charles and Hitomi tried their best to build a happy life despite living in an apartment without heating during the winter and having to grow their own food because there wasn’t enough food rations for everyone. The couple even had 2 daughters together…
Return To Japan
But in 2002, everything changed again when North Korea agreed to return surviving Japanese citizens that they had kidnapped. That year, Hitomi finally went home after decades away while her husband and children stayed in North Korea.
In 2004, Charles and his daughters, Roberta Mika Jenkins and Brinda Carol Jenkins, were finally allowed to join Hitomi permanently in Japan. Once in Japan, Charles stood trial for deserting the U.S. Army about 4 decades before.“You don’t say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim Il-sung and then you dig your own hole, because you’re gone,” Charles said during the trial…
After pleading guilty, Charles was given a 30-day jail sentence, was demoted to private, dishonorably discharged, and stripped of any benefits. “I was released five days early, for good behavior,” said Charles, who wrote a book about his experience. After serving his sentence, Charles moved to be with his wife and kids in Sado.
Charles, Hitomi, and their kids visited the United States to see his family after decades apart before returning to Japan, where Charles lived and worked until his death on December 11, 2017. Despite everything that happened, Charles doesn’t regret what happened to him as a result of deserting the Army. “If I did not do what I did, I would not have my wife and my girls, the three most important people in my life.”