CAMP ZAMA, Japan -- Ending one of the Army's longest desertion cases, Charles Robert Jenkins was sentenced to 30 days in a military jail yesterday for abandoning his unit on a freezing hillside to cross over into North Korea nearly 40 years ago.
In the one-day court-martial, Jenkins, now a sickly 64-year-old, admitted he left his men before dawn Jan. 5, 1965, to avoid the dangers of patrols along the Demilitarized Zone and a possible assignment to Vietnam.
''It seems like a lifetime ago when it happened, even though I think about it every day," he said in a statement read to the court. ''I just wanted to go home."
''I am sorry to the Army, and I am sorry to my family," he said.
Jenkins's confession brought to a close one of the longest and most unusual desertion cases in US Army history. No deserter has ever turned himself in after such a long absence. While in North Korea, Jenkins even acted in an anti-US propaganda movie, playing a villainous American stooge.
The sentence was something of an anticlimax, however.
Though he faced a possible life term, he was given only 30 days in jail and a demotion from sergeant to the rank of private. He was also forced to forfeit all back pay and benefits and handed a dishonorable discharge.
The sentencing was in accordance with a pretrial agreement. The judge recommended the sentence be suspended; pending a military ruling Jenkins immediately began serving time at a US naval detention center near Tokyo.
Breaking down into tears, Jenkins pleaded guilty to desertion and to a charge of aiding the enemy for teaching English to North Korean cadets in the 1980s.
The prosecution called Jenkins's decision to leave his squad was a ''despicable and selfish act."
''These crimes -- deserting and aiding the enemy -- are really crimes against the nation," prosecutor Captain Seth Cohen told the court at this base just south of Tokyo. ''These crimes need to be punished."
Jenkins's defense attorney, Captain James Culp, said four decades in North Korea was punishment enough.
Jenkins, formerly of Rich Square, N.C., surrendered to US military authorities on Sept. 11, two months after he left North Korea and came to Japan. Tokyo called for leniency in his case so he could live in Japan with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters.
Soga, a hugely sympathetic figure in Japan, married Jenkins after she was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978.
In full military dress for the proceedings, Jenkins wept as he described his depression, fears of death, and heavy drinking in the days leading up to his desertion.
He said he began thinking of fleeing because he was afraid he would be transferred to dangerous daytime ''hunt and kill" patrols in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, and feared he could not lead a squad into fighting.
''I started drinking alcohol," he said, bursting into tears. ''I never drank so much before."
Jenkins said he was also convinced he would be sent to Vietnam.
''I knew Vietnam was combat, and jungle warfare," he told the court. ''I'd never been in the jungle in my life. How could I lead soldiers there?"
After 10 days of planning, he headed for North Korea with a white T-shirt tied to his rifle as a flag of surrender.
''I walked slowly and arrived in the early morning because it was dark and mines were everywhere," he said. ''It was a no man's land."
Jenkins said he intended to ask the North Koreans to send him to the Soviet Union, and thought he would then be returned to the United States.
Instead, he said, he was treated harshly in North Korea and forced to teach English to military cadets from 1981 until 1985, adding that refusing to do so would have brought ''hardship to me and my family that would never end."
''I refused to teach for three days once," he said. ''They came to my house, tied me up, and beat the hell out of me."
Raised in poverty, Jenkins joined the National Guard at 15 and the Army when he was 18. He said he at first liked the Army, and had an Army logo tattooed on his arm. In North Korea, he was ordered to have the word ''Army" cut off, without anesthesia.
''The doctor, if that's what he was, said they only used pain killers on the battlefield," he said.
Jenkins said he was kept under constant surveillance, and forced to study the writings of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, for 10 or more hours each day. His only joy, he said, was his love for his wife and daughters.
Soga pleaded with the court for leniency. ''He loved us, his family, from his heart," she said. ''I felt that he protected me."
Jenkins became the focus of intense negotiations in 2002, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted Soga had been abducted. She and four other abductees were allowed to return to Japan that year, but Jenkins and his daughters -- Mika, now 21, and Brinda, now 19 -- stayed behind until coming here in July.