by Chiggers Stokes
Special to The Forks Forum
Last week my closest neighbor AND closest friend called to tell me that his 98-year-old father, Col. Ralph Jenkins had passed. Col. Jenkins was an iconic representative of what has become known as “Our Greatest Generation.” In World War II he survived two tours of aerial combat as a fighting commander. Such was his contribution to the war effort that Paul Allen chose to restore the P-47 of the Flying Heritage Collection in facsimile to the “Tallahassee Lassie” that fought its way across the skies of Europe under the control of this Commander. It was my huge privilege to know the man and learn his story first hand.
Being a writer-wanna-be, I thought I could follow other writers who had captured parts of his story and produce an amazing work, not by its writing, but by its content. Col. Jenkins gave me my chance. Modesty and humor could not disguise the raw courage, heroism and skill that he demonstrated in service to this country. For several hours I sat in his family room in Seattle, with two portable recording devices running. I was drawn into a story that was far bigger than me. The “interview” amounted to me just listening with mouth agape in awe of what I was hearing … or mostly hearing, since I am pretty impaired in that department. His son-in-law came into the room and mentioned that my recording devices were creating feedback. I turned off the one and the other failed for the last hour of our session. I paid to have a transcript made of the mostly usable first two hours. But reading Col. Jenkins’ words, I could come up with nothing to improve or embellish the words of the man himself.
The story he told is of a child moving in the Great Depression, to Seattle, a few blocks from where we sat in his family room. “It was easier to be poor then,” explained Col. Jenkins, “because we were all poor.” He delivered papers on the streets of Seattle and sneaked into the National Guard at age 16 to make ends meet.
Later in high school, he worked summers as a fire lookout for the Forest Service. When the Civilian Conservation Corps came to the Pacific Northwest, he noticed that the crew leaders were foresters. He enrolled in the U of W Forestry Department, but on Dec. 7, 1941, was called to active duty.
When his tent camp was buzzed by a low flying war bird, Col. Jenkins’ heart grew wings. He signed on with the Army Air Corps. When he was training to be an instructor, staged out of, he fell in love and married Wisteria, his first Tallahassee Lassie. Thereafter, he assumed command of the 510th Fighter Squadron. Flying missions in Europe, Col. Jenkins engaged the enemy in the air and on the ground, and softened resistance for the Allied push into Germany. With the fall of Berlin, the Luftwaffe of the Russian front crash landed their aircraft onto the 510th airfield. The colonelaccepted their surrender and told them to get in the chow line with his own men. The war was over, but the dark horrors of concentration camps were coming to light. An American pilot knocked the dinner tray from the hands of a prisoner. Col. Jenkins restored order.
He went on to fly B-29s in the Korean conflict, commanding the 97th Bomber Wing, into the Cold War and up to his retirement in 1968. Col. Jenkins is a hero to me, just as he was to anyone in or out of uniform that knew him.
I feel doubly blessed to have him for a personal hero since I am a pacifist. I believe that war is not the solution to human dilemma, but a major cause of it. The last time I said the Pledge of Allegiance was in sixth grade. A teacher told me that I had to say it. I told her, in a free country, I did not. It turned out I was right. What started as a test of wills grew to a belief that it is ill-founded to give my allegiance to something as fallible as any government on earth. It is this land and WE people that claim my allegiance. My belief is that government should serve us, rather than the other way around. In sixth grade, I joined the Society of Friends. The Quakers put into play nascent notions of non-violence.
As I labored my way through high school, the tragedy of Vietnam loomed larger and larger on the horizon. At 18 years old, I sorted out my beliefs and applied for Conscientious Objector status. To obtain this classification one must refute ALL war, not just the unpopular ones.
I came to disagree with many of you who believe that Freedom is Not Free. I believe(d) that Peace is an inalienable right. I believe(d) that the Dark Evil that threatens our homeland, subjects us to unjust taxes, puts us in want, deprives us of freedom and comes for our children, is not some foreign government or modern crusaders we might call “terrorists”… but War itself. Perhaps we also disagree on this point, but my religious conviction is that All war must be resisted, including the one so heroically fought by the Greatest Generation.
I keep weapons and I DO believe in self-defense. I do believe in defending the homeland. And there is such a thing as use of force to keep peace. But Afghanistan, Vietnam or even Pearl Harbor (when you look at how the United States took it from the Hawaiians), is not my land or people.
THIS is! I have never, in my life, felt the attachment to community, to the land, and to my neighbors, as I feel here in Forks. I accept that many, or most of you, may disagree with my notions of war. Tolerating beliefs that are not your own is a big step in building peace. Thank you, Forks, for making a home for me!
This Memorial Day is a chance for us to put aside political and philosophical differences and together reflect upon the sacrifices, hardships and courage of our men and women at arms. If I am correct, and War is the real enemy, that in no way detracts from their valor.
To those of you who have ever worn the uniform, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!