|Associated Press Newswires
Friday, March 29, 2002
YORK, S.C. (AP) - When the woman on the phone last summer said she was with the U.S. Defense Department, a flood of memories engulfed Helen Jackson from one of the worst events of her life - the death of her baby brother Rob.
During the early days of World War II, Germans shot down his plane in the Mediterranean region. The woman on the phone was calling to say his plane had been found in North Africa and his remains recovered; they'd found his dog tags. "It was unbelievable. I was in shock; I cried. They found dear Rob. We're going to finally bring him home to be buried," said Jackson, the only surviving member of her parents' family. "It took me a while to digest what the woman was telling me. They had found my little brother. He was only 20 years old."
Robert Boyce Jenkins was a bombardier-navigator on a B-26 Martin Marauder. He had flown five combat missions but had been in the military less than a year. The plane was shot down Dec. 15, 1942, by anti-aircraft fire during a U.S. attack on a German air base at El Aouina on the coast of Tunisia. Famed aviator Brig. Gen. James Doolittle announced from the Army's North African headquarters that an airman under his command, Robert Boyce Jenkins, was missing in action. The Army later presented Jenkins' mother the Air Medal for her son's "exceptional meritorious achievement in combat," at Charlotte's old Morris Air Field. Three of Jenkins'nephews were named in honor of their Uncle Rob.
Jenkins' B-26 was accidentally discovered in November 2000 during a dredging operation in Lake Tunis, near the capital city of Tunis. Because of Army censorship over security concerns, the family had never been notified more specifically of where the plane went down other than "in the Mediterranean region." After the plane's discovery 16 months ago, U.S. military authorities were contacted and the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii conducted a two-month underwater excavation in Tunisia.
Based on the plane's serial number, officials made a preliminary identification of the six-member crew. U.S. Navy divers were able to recover the remains, which were then flown to the military's identification laboratory in Honolulu. Since 1973, the Army's lab has recovered remains believed to be those of 389 World War II servicemen from around the globe. More than 250 have been identified and returned to their families for burial. One of the problems in notifying next of kin is the passage of time. Family members married and moved to other cities, making it difficult for the military to find survivors of the crew in Tunisia.
Helen Jackson had married and moved to Massachusetts and then returned to the Carolinas; it took nearly six months for the military to locate her. Army officials told her in July it would take "several months" to complete the necessary forensic exams to confirm identification of the remains. As next of kin, Jackson was asked to submit DNA and blood samples, which she did. "They were quite efficient and polite about it; I know they want to be careful about the identification," said Jackson, who lives with her husband, Fred, in an 1850s-era home in York that has been in her family for several generations. However, Jackson is concerned that at age 85 and as the only surviving relative, she wants to be sure her brother's remains are returned while she is still physically able to assist in his burial. "I feel an obligation to be the one that sees to it that Rob is finally and properly buried," she said.
Army spokeswoman Sherry Lawrence, with the Mortuary Affairs office in Arlington, Va., said Thursday she could not discuss specifics of the case with a non-family member. She added that the Jenkins case still was being processed and when a positive identification could be established, the family would be notified and the remains returned. She said she could not speculate on when that identification might be completed. In the meantime, Jackson has made arrangements to have her brother buried with full military honors at Bethel Presbyterian Church near Clover, where her parents are buried. Five generations of her family are buried there, including at least one Revolutionary War veteran. A plaque was placed at the foot of Rob's parents' tombstones after he was announced MIA. "I was the one who went to the door when the telegraph was delivered that told us his plane had gone down," Jackson said. "As horrible as Rob's death was, with practically his whole life still ahead of him, I have come to accept his death. Now I just want to lay him to rest.