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The Untold Story of the Black Marines Charged With Mutiny at Sea

2020-08-19 09:00:40

Barnwell seems to have fared even worse. His sister Patricia Gorman says Barnwell lived in San Diego after leaving the Marine Corps, frequently moving from one apartment to another. But she only learned that from him much later: When he returned from Okinawa, he didn’t contact his family for more than 25 years. He got in touch in 1998, and she bought him a round-trip train ticket to visit her in Choctaw County, Ala., where they grew up. It was the first time she saw him since he went away to boot camp in 1970. It was soon apparent that he wasn’t about to make himself at home there. Encountering slow service at a restaurant run by white people, he suspected racism and wasn’t quiet about it. On a different day, he was pulled over by the police while driving. After that visit, he never went back to Alabama. In 2001, Barnwell called Gorman to say the cancer he had once beaten was back and he might have H.I.V. Public records indicate Barnwell died April 9, 2001, in Los Angeles of complications from AIDS. His family was never notified of his death, and after 90 days, his remains were cremated and his ashes interred in a mass grave for unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles County.

Jenkins still lives in Detroit, where he has quietly spent the last four decades distancing himself from what happened on the Sumter, while still maintaining a fierce pride in having been a Marine. Jenkins had wanted to join the Corps since he was very young, and studied its history before joining at age 17. He initially hoped to make the military a career, but quickly chafed against systemic racism in the service. “I was full of piss and vinegar back then,” Jenkins says. “I look back to my 19-year-old self and think, What the hell was I thinking?”

He says the only thing that saved him was some advice he got from his uncle, John A. Jenkins, a Korean War combat vet, when he first got home from Okinawa. “I was mad as hell, angry at the world then,” Jenkins says. “He drove it into me that if the cops stop you, that’s their chance to mess you up. It’s almost like coming to America as a foreigner: You have to learn the rules as a Black man to survive. You have to know what to do and what not to do.” Jenkins set out on the straight and narrow, opting out of joints passed around at parties and being meticulous about observing traffic laws. He says he has been pulled over by the police only once or twice since 1973.

After his brief hospitalization in 1991, Jenkins stopped working outside his home and devoted himself to helping his wife, Jerry, advance in her career, and shepherding his daughter, Tanzania, through school to a successful life as a systems engineer. Being charged with mutiny at sea in a time of war shattered Jenkins emotionally — and readily brought tears 48 years later as he discussed it. “I’ve been a recluse all these years, because I didn’t want these questions asked, and didn’t want to talk about it,” Jenkins says. About 15 years ago, he joined a local V.F.W. post to try to meet people. “Most of the guys were Korea and World War II guys who carried these same issues,” Jenkins says. It became difficult for him to keep going back, because so many appeared to be drinking themselves to death.

As Jenkins slowly rebuilt his life, he lost track of the only two people who truly understood what happened to him: Barnwell and Blackwell. Jenkins only just learned of their deaths. “I was hoping that at least one of the two of them would be in a stable situation and be able to be here now,” Jenkins says. “That’s why I feel so alone, you know. I feel very — almost guilty about this situation that neither of those two are here.”

While most days are better, Jenkins struggled with thoughts of suicide as recently as 10 years ago. On days when his mind goes back to the Sumter, his wife can tell, because he falls quiet for hours at a time. “That situation on the Sumter screwed up my whole life,” Jenkins says. “I had to put on a different face to the world just to survive.”

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