Pa. soldier lost in WWII coming home
By DAVID SINGLETON | The Times-Tribune | Published: September 16, 2018
SCRANTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) -- For as long as she lived, Verna Jenkins kept a small porcelain angel next to the photograph of her son, Willard, a token of faith that one day he would return home.
Today, as the angel sits in front of the same photo on a table at her daughter Edna Jenkins' apartment in South Scranton, it's become a symbol of a mother's faith fulfilled.
In July, the Department of Defense notified Edna Jenkins that it had identified the remains of her late brother, Army Pfc. Willard "Bud" Jenkins, who died 74 years ago this week in the Netherlands during one of World War II's most storied battles.
"I said, 'What?!" Edna Jenkins, 83, the last surviving member of her immediate family, said of the unexpected call from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency. "I was shocked. I said, 'Boy, I wish some of my family was still around so they knew, too.'"
Jenkins, a paratrooper with Company C, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, landed in the Netherlands in September 1944, as part of Operation Market Garden, an Allied offensive aimed at securing a number of Dutch bridges for a push into the Ruhr district of Germany.
On Sept. 20, the 27-year-old West Scranton man was among hundreds of American soldiers who, using small, flimsy canvas boats borrowed from the British, were ordered to cross the Waal River at the Dutch city of Nijmegen to make an amphibious attack on the heavily fortified German positions on the opposite side.
Lost in the river after he was hit twice by enemy fire, Jenkins was one of 48 Americans killed in the daring daylight crossing, which would be depicted in the 1977 film, "A Bridge Too Far." Although his body was recovered, it could not be identified, and he was buried as an "unknown" at the American cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.
His remains are due to be returned to Scranton later this month, with funeral services and burial with full military honors tentatively scheduled for Sept. 26.
"He's going to come home," said Jenkins' nephew, Paul Driebe, of Apalachin, New York. "It will be nice to bring him back."
Willard Jenkins was born in Scranton in 1917, and grew up in West Side, the second child and first son of David and Verna Jenkins. His parents named him Willard after his father's brother, who served as Scranton's assistant postmaster, but he went by his nickname, Bud.
David Jenkins worked for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, while Verna Jenkins tended to a family that would grow to include 10 children -- three boys and seven girls -- of whom Edna Jenkins and her twin sister, Ethel, were the youngest.
Willard Jenkins attended Scranton Technical High School, although his sister said she's not certain whether he graduated. He worked for a time in a coal mine on Taylor Hill, she said, and later took a job driving tractor-trailer. The Sunday Times' files indicate he was employed as a driver for White Lines Express Co. before entering the Army in June 1942.
Because of her age at the time -- she was 7 when he enlisted and 9 when he was killed -- Edna Jenkins said she doesn't remember much about her brother.
He was tall -- 6-foot-1, according to his military records, although in her memory, he will always be taller than that. And, he was handsome -- "a good-looking boy," she said.
The family lived in the 300 block of 13th Avenue, up a long, relatively steep hill above Luzerne Street, and while Jenkins never married, he had the eye of several girls in the neighborhood, Edna Jenkins said.
"There is one I remember. She would say hello to my mom and then, 'How's Bud doing?' and this and that. It seemed like she walked up that hill every day," she said.
Edna Jenkins' most vivid memory of her brother is from when she around 5 years old. She and her twin sister would run down the hill to meet Jenkins at Luzerne Street when he came home from work. On payday, he would stop at a neighborhood store and buy them candy.
"Then he would walk us, one on each shoulder, up the hill," she said.
After his enlistment, Jenkins was assigned to a tank destroyer unit before later volunteering for paratroop duty. He underwent training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in late 1943.
The War Department notified his family that he was missing in action in Holland shortly after the Waal crossing. The department updated his status to "killed in action" in a telegram to his parents in April 1945.
Edna Jenkins said she learned Dutch nationals found her brother's body downstream after the battle and brought it ashore. However, Germans soldiers "came along and stripped everything off of him so they didn't know who he was," she said.
"That's why all this came about or we would have had him home a long time ago," she said.
The loss was especially devastating for her mother, who never truly accepted that her eldest son was gone, Edna Jenkins said. Verna Jenkins died in 1950, still thinking it was possible her son had been wounded and had not come home "because he didn't want anybody to see how bad he was," she said.
"To her dying day, she believed he was alive," her daughter said.
Edna Jenkins said she is thankful her mother never learned the full circumstances of her son's death.
When the Americans began their amphibious assault across the Waal, according to a later account given by Capt. T. Moffatt Burriss, Jenkins sat at the stern of the one of lead boats, operating the rudder against the river's strong current. Shells exploded and bullets whizzed around them.
As they neared the river's midpoint, Jenkins informed Burriss he had been hit. As Burriss started to take the rudder, Jenkins was struck a second time in the head, killing him instantly. The engineer's upper body fell into the water, dragging the boat off course as the paratroopers at the front screamed for someone to steer.
Burriss reached over, pulled Jenkins' feet from beneath his seat and flipped his body into the river.
The story is recounted in "The Crossing," published by a journalist with De Gelderlander newspaper in Nijmegen to commemorate Jenkins and the 47 other Americans who died during the assault. Edna Jenkins contributed photos and memories of her brother for the book.
"It's hard to hear that," Edna Jenkins said of the account of his death.
Although the larger Operation Market Garden fell short of its objectives, the Waal crossing ultimately led to the liberation of Nijmegen, and residents of the city still remember.
The book's publication coincided with Nijmegen's dedication in 2013, of a new bridge over the Waal named simply De Oversteek, Dutch for "the crossing." The names of Jenkins and the other fallen soldiers are placed on 48 pairs of street lamps on the bridge. Each night at dusk, the lamps light up, pair by pair, in slow succession over a nearly 12-minute span to remember the Americans.
Jenkins' name is also listed on a memorial honor roll near the river's edge.
Driebe, who was only 4 years old when his uncle died and has no real recollection of him, said it came as a double surprise when his aunt Edna called a few weeks ago to let him know her brother's remains had at long last been identified using her DNA.
"I didn't know that Edna gave a sample of her DNA -- I don't remember her saying that," he said. "The next thing I know she's telling us they matched her DNA to the body and there's going to be a full military thing."
Edna Jenkins said someone from the military contacted her a couple of years ago about providing a DNA sample to have on file in the event a match could be made. She didn't think much more about it until she got the call in July.
Willard Jenkins will be buried near his parents in a family plot at Abington Hills Cemetery.
While it is a shame none of her other brothers and sisters are alive to welcome their brother back, Edna Jenkins said, she is grateful and relieved it is happening while she is still around.
"At least I know he's here," she said. "He's home with everybody else."
(c) 2018 The Times-Tribune. Visit The Times-Tribune at thetimes-tribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.