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Town Buries Marine With Pride and Sorrow : War: California hamlet remembers 21-year-old, one of the first combat casualties, as an American hero.

February 10, 1991|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COULTERVILLE, Calif. — Thommy Jenkins was a seventh-generation resident of this Sierra foothill town, a rustic old place where young boys shoot guns and fight fires and learn not to cry when it hurts. But there were no such rules on Saturday.

Men with faces of steel broke down and wept in the warm morning sun as they listened to a young woman from nearby Jamestown sing the National Anthem and a bagpiper from Mariposa blow the melancholy notes of "Amazing Grace."

Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Jenkins had left last summer for the Persian Gulf. He came home Saturday, all of 21 years old, in a shiny 18-gauge metal coffin.

Along with a Marine who was buried Saturday in White House, Tex., Jenkins preserved for himself a dark footnote in the young war's history--the first American combat casualties to be brought home and laid to rest.

About 500 people turned out for the service, conducted in a town park that had been decorated with flags usually reserved for the Fourth of July barbecue. There was no talk of "friendly fire" or wasted youth. Jenkins was remembered as an American hero.

"His unwavering devotion to duty, loyalty to country, faithfulness to his comrades at arms, and his love for his family and community are qualities that capture the essence of the spirit of this great nation," a Navy chaplain told the crowd, which came from all over the foothills and was twice as large as the town's population.

"Thomas Allen Jenkins," the chaplain said, addressing the coffin. "Your sacrifice will not be forgotten."

Marines were present to honor their fallen comrade with a formal military funeral, complete with a 21-gun salute and color guard. Jenkins died in a battle that began Jan. 29 near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. He was one of the first 11 ground fatalities, of which seven are believed to have been killed by fire from a U.S. warplane.

No one here seems to know for sure whether Jenkins was one of those killed by so-called "friendly fire." That question, when raised, only produces hurtful looks.

"It would be kind of nice to know how it happened," said Jenkins' great-grandmother, Ila Barrett, "but maybe we will never know. I don't know if it will make a difference to me. He is gone."

The casket was placed on a cart at the edge of the small Coulterville Park, just inside the chain link fence that surrounds the small green and playground, and out of reach of the spindly, barren branches of three big black walnut trees.

The volunteer Fire Department, of which Jenkins had been a member, decorated the park with the flags and yellow ribbons.

"The last time he rode on the engine," said Dan Marszalek, the town mechanic and one of Jenkins' best friends, "was Christmas of '89. We went up to the schoolhouse, where we met Santa Claus and came down Main Street with the siren and horn and everything into the firehouse parking lot, where we gave away presents."

"And now, that engine is sitting over there with a black ribbon on it. That hurts."

A color photograph taken last year, when Jenkins signed up for the Marines, was propped in front of his casket. It seemed an almost cruel reminder of the good-looking boy from Ferry Road, a boy who always had dreamed of joining the military but lived just 12 months after doing so.

"I talked him out of joining the first time," said Tom Jenkins, the Marine's father, a foreman with the California Department of Transportation. "I talked him into going to college. He did for a while. Later, he still wanted to go. We talked about it again, and I said, 'Really think about it, but you are old enough to make up your own mind.' "

The elder Jenkins, a proud man with a chiseled face, thick mustache and deep eyes, sat in the front row at the park, his glistening gaze fixed on his son's casket. His wife, Joyce, a school bus driver with thick blond hair, gripped her husband's leg and sobbed softly behind a large pair of sunglasses.

It was a sad day in Coulterville, the likes of which nobody could remember. Three young boys had died in a house fire in nearby Greeley Hill five years ago, but somehow this seemed even worse. The Jenkinses were pioneers in these parts--they even have a ridge named after them--and everybody knew Thommy Jenkins, or at least knew of him.

"Thommy was just country boy Thommy," said Mary Sartain, who helped organize an afternoon potluck dinner for friends and family. "The outdoors was his life. He would be very proud if he was remembered this way."

As is custom in communities nestled in the Mother Lode foothills, friends and strangers came from all over to pay respects to the fallen Marine, a fellow who had been voted by classmates at Mariposa County High School as "Best Companion on a Desert Island."

Coulterville Park was a patchwork of uniforms, from bright orange shirts of the local search-and-rescue team to the green overseas caps of the Mariposa Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Even the Long Riders Motorcycle Club from Modesto dispatched two members dressed in black leather jackets and chaps.

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