STAR PARK

By A. R. Graham

At the gas station on Orange Avenue in Coronado, California hangs a lonely and badly tattered black and white flag.  It bears an image of an American soldier, head bowed with a Vietnamese prison guard tower in the background.  The mournful letters POW*MIA are chilling to the eyes even now many years after the conflict.  The flag is soaking wet from a heavy rain as a driving wind whips it into an angry frenzy.

Old Glory is hanging next to the disheveled banner.  She is also buffeted by the high winds, but she is intact and vibrant as the violent gusts of air streak across her.  The stars are dancing almost as if twinkling in nightlights.

Most young people today have no idea what the POW*MIA flag stands for.  To see it neglected and forgotten is a dismal tribute to those who will never return.  The fate of the missing is still highly disputed, and amidst this confusion, the truth may never be known.

In Coronado, there is a very special place of tribute in honor of ALL of the souls who died for our nation.  One block from the Pacific Ocean lays a serene circular park.  A massive pine canopy filled with tuneful birdcalls hangs above; and as the dawn breaks, the sun gently brushes the face of Old Glory and the rest of the flags hanging next to her:  the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard, and at the very end, flying briskly in a warm Santa Ana wind is the MIA flag.  Rivulets of wind ripple across its face as the soldier’s black silhouette seems to be speaking urgently, “Forget Me Not.”  “Forget Me Not.”

Or perhaps that is just this writer’s imagination.

JENKINS, HARRY TARLETON JR.

SYNOPSIS:   CDR Harry T. Jenkins, Jr. was a pilot assigned to Attack Air Wing 16 onboard the USS Oriskany.  Jenkins was a respected seventeen-year aviation veteran.  Jenkins had grown up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from high school in 1945.  In 1948, he earned his wings and reached the pinnacle of operational success, command of a carrier-based squadron, the Saints of Attack Squadron 163, on December 30, 1964.  He flew many combat missions from the Oriskany.

One such mission was flown September 9, 1965.  A major strike had been scheduled against the Thanh Hoa (“Dragon Jaw”) bridge, and the weather was so critical there was a question whether to launch.  Finally, the decision was to launch.  Halfway through, weather reconnaissance reported the weather in the target area was zero, and the CAG, Commander James B. Stockdale, had no choice but to send the aircraft on secondary targets.  Stockdale and his wingman, CDR Wynn Foster, circled the Gulf of Tonkin while CDR Harry Jenkins took his strike element to look for a SAM site at their secondary target — had anything been found, Wynn and Stockdale were to join Jenkins’ group.

After fifteen minutes or so, Jenkins’ group came up empty.  The group made the decision to hit a secondary target, a railroad facility near the city of Thanh Hoa.  It was here that CDR Stockdale’s aircraft was hit by flak.

Stockdale ejected, landing in a village and was captured.  The villagers brutally beat Stockdale as they took him captive, all within sight of the aircraft above.  Stockdale was held captive for seven and a half years, and he was to see Jenkins again before he was released.  CDR Wynn Foster would eventually assume Jenkins’ position as squadron commander of VA-163.

Jenkins carried a Bible with him on the ship, letting it fall open somewhere to read.   One night, the passage said something about, “He shall fall into his enemies.”  Jenkins wondered at the time if that was a premonition.  He also dreamed about becoming a prisoner.  He was worried about losing his men and agonized over planning, of finding the best way to a target.  He confided to another fellow officer that he was tired, not only physically, but emotionally as well.

On one particular mission Jenkins had narrowly escaped death when an anti-aircraft shell hit his aircraft, blowing off the canopy and destroying the instrument panel.  Jenkins guided the crippled aircraft safely back to the Oriskany.   When he landed on the deck of the Oriskany, he discovered that shrapnel had penetrated his G-suit, but hadn’t reached the inner lining.  These sorts of missions sapped the strength of the best of pilots.

On November 12, 1965, Jenkins launched in his A4E Skyhawk fighter aircraft on his 133rd combat mission on a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. He was two weeks short of leaving Vietnam for home.  Then on November 13, 1965, Jenkins and his wingman launched in their A4E aircraft on Jenkins’ 133rd combat mission.  The target area was Dong Hoi, a quiet area where nothing much happened because of reports that the river southwest of the city was passing traffic.  The two pilots went around the river but determined it was not navigable.  On their return, they decided to crater a road junction in case traffic was going through there at night.  They planned to slow down the traffic then return at night and check traffic again.

On the way to the junction, about ten miles from the coast, they passed a clump of trees where it appeared that a lot of traffic had driven, possibly a truck park.  The wingman orbited while Jenkins went down to investigate.  He flew very low, ten to twelve feet off the ground, and at fairly slow speed, looking under the trees.  Nothing was around, and the area was quiet.

Pulling off and heading toward the coast, Jenkins heard a gun start firing. He looked back and could see two streams of tracers from a 37-millimeter enemy anti-aircraft gun, a twin mount, nearly dead astern from him.  He quickly pulled back on the stick of his Skyhawk and sought the safety of cloud cover overhead.  But the aircraft had been hit dead astern, in “the hell hole” just aft and under the seat where the control junctions, electrical buses are.  The controls of the aircraft were immediately disconnected.  The stick wouldn’t function, and all electrical gear was down.

A second explosion followed.  Jenkins continued to climb and headed toward water, still some six to eight miles away.  The aircraft started rolling very rapidly and began to drop.  So Jenkins was forced to eject below 2,500 feet.

The wingman circled above.  Below, the Vietnamese were all around howling and yelling.  Jenkins landed on a rise approximately 12 miles south of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam.  The rise was covered with short brush and no place to hide.  He had no time to assemble his emergency radio and ran up the hill and slid under the brush.  His ejection and progress were intermittently monitored by his wingman as low clouds allowed.  The Vietnamese approached him, swinging a sickle on a stick, and slashing through the brush.  Another came right to his feet, poking with a stick.  Jenkins gave himself up.

In Jenkins’ words, “…if that had been one of my earlier missions, there is no way that gunner would have gotten me.  I’d just seen so much flak and had been hit several times.  I was just tired, I guess, and not thinking.”

Meanwhile, Jenkins’ wingman had been joined by nine other aircraft within five minutes of the initial bailout.  A1s circled overhead looking for Jenkins.  The Vietnamese were all armed and began shooting at the A1s, evidently for Jenkins’ benefit, as with each shot came a glance towards Jenkins.  Search and rescue aircraft reported observing over 100 troops and other personnel in Jenkins’ vicinity.  They remained on station looking for Jenkins for about two hours, but the Vietnamese successfully hid him from view.

A Radio Hanoi broadcast on November 14th indicated that an American pilot was shot down and captured on November 13th in the Dong Hoi District.

Jenkins was moved toward Hanoi, traveling at night.  During the trip, Jenkins was amazed by the large numbers of trucks that moved through the night in North Vietnam.  While he had seen only a few trucks from the air at night and never in daylight as a pilot, he was astounded to see the tremendous numbers of trucks moving under low light, guiding by reflective painted stripes or plastic strips on the road about every thirty feet.

Jenkins arrived at the Hoa Loa Prison in Hanoi in the early morning hours of November 23rd.  He was taken first to the “Meathook Room” for interrogation; then later to a cell where his ankles were manacled and locked together by a long steel bar topped by a heavy piece of lumber.  His wrists were tied behind him, upper arms laced tightly together from elbows to shoulders.

Jenkins was the fifty-fifthAmerican POW and the first senior officer to be tortured upon arrival in Hanoi.  For two years and one month, from late 1967 through most of 1969, CDR Jenkins, the third-ranking senior naval officer in a North Vietnamese prison camp, was put into leg irons at five o’clock each evening and stayed in irons until seven the next morning.  As special punishment for communicating with another prisoner on one occasion, Jenkins spend 85 consecutive days in irons.

In early 1969, Jenkins became ill and was in great pain at a camp known as Alcatraz, located some ten blocks from the Hanoi Hilton.  He was receiving no medical care, and fellow prisoners, led by Jenkins’ former wing commander, Jim Stockdale, put the pressure on.  What ensued might be called a “prison riot”.  The effort did bring a doctor to Jenkins’ cell; although the doctor did nothing to ease his pain.  The next morning, Stockdale organized a 48-hour fast to demand medical attention for Jenkins.  The next evening, each prisoner was interrogated and on the morning of January 27th, Stockdale was taken away to another prison center.

While the Vietnamese clearly had the upper hand on controlling their American captors, the POWs found many ways to “slip one over” on the Vietnamese.  One day, Jenkins discovered a loose wire in an extension cord and secretly shorted the wire, so that when guards turned the lights on that evening, three or four fuses were blown before the lights could be made to work.  Jenkins carried the fun from camp to camp.  In one camp, the lights were all in a series.  Jenkins bared the wire in his room and alternately shorted and restored the lights so that the camp was totally dark or completely lit at his whim.  He also broke some wires in a radio speaker causing all the speakers in the camp to go out.  He manipulated the wires in a radio, and, using the POW tap code, sent messages around the camp by turning the Vietnamese music on and off in code.

During the years Jenkins was a prisoner of war, he was taken across the infamous Thanh Hoa bridge.  A girder that he had hit on a strike mission prior to his capture was, to his great satisfaction, still wide open.

CDR Jenkins was held as a prisoner of war until he was released in Operation Homecoming in 1973.  He had been held for over seven years.  He was among 591 lucky American prisoners who came home at the end of the war.

Since the war ended, nearly 10,000 reports relating to Americans missing, prisoner, or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia have been received by the U.S. government.  Many authorities who have examined this largely classified information are convinced that hundreds of Americans are still held captive today.  These reports are the source of serious distress to many returned American prisoners.  They had a code that no one could honorably return unless all of the prisoners returned.  Not only that code of honor, but the honor of our country, is at stake as long as even one man remains unjustly held.  It is time we brought our men home.

Harry Tarleton Jenkins, Jr., was promoted to the rank of Captain during the years he was a prisoner of war.  He lived in Coronado, California, and worked for a defense contractor.  Captain Harry Jenkins died in the crash of a homemade aircraft 2, August, 1995.

“I was C.O. of VA-163 flying the A4E when shot down 13 November 1965 nea Dong Hoi, North Vietnam.  During my stay in North Vietnam, I spent four years in solitary confinement.  During this time I did much reflection on my life and my faith.  While I hope never to repeat the experience, I feel I gained a certain insight into things I might never have obtained otherwise.  Since I’ve returned I’ve been asked many times “was the war right, was it worthwhile?”  There is no doubt in my mind we were right in fighting.  I don’t think we had to fight to preserve America but it was necessary in order to preserve American honor.

A free people were threatened with the yoke of Communism being imposed by force, I fought to prevent that and I feel that fight was successful.  Our belief in freedom of choice for all required that we help the South Vietnamese or any other nation that needs our help.

We owe our independence to foreign help, mainly French, and our honor dictates that we stand ready to offer help to others when they need it to remain free.  Many men invested their whole lifetime to this cause. I invested only seven years.  Though I hope never to have to, I’m ready to invest more if it is required.

I wish everyone could understand the gratitude I feel for their thoughts and prayers during those long years and I’d like to ask everyone to continue their prayers until all those not yet home have been properly accounted for.”


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