BIGELOW -- At 39 square miles, the island of Tinian -- part of the Mariana Islands in the North Pacific -- is just a mere speck on a world globe. Yet, what happened on that little island, surrounded by secrecy, changed the course of battle and brought victory to the American forces in World War II.
Lee Jenkins of Bigelow was a Navy Seabee during the war. A native of Worthington, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, hitchhiked a ride to Omaha, Neb., and learned the welding trade. When he'd completed the class, he returned home and was hired by the Worthington rendering plant.
After the war began, Jenkins figured it would only be a matter of time before his name was called and he'd have to report for duty. When it was, Jenkins' boss and rendering plant owner, D.C. Gilbert, requested his employee be deferred -- he needed Jenkins to help at the plant.
Three successful deferral requests later, Jenkins' manager feared the luck would soon run out. Rather than see the young man get drafted into the Army, he told Jenkins to go to Sioux Falls, S.D., and apply for the Navy Seabees. His experience as a welder would likely be sought after by the military's construction battalion.
In the late spring of 1943, Jenkins, along with his girlfriend and two other men, traveled across the state line, and he signed up to serve his country.
Days later, he traveled to Omaha for a physical, and eventually reported to Minneapolis for his basic training assignment in Gulfport, Miss.
Jenkins served his country for more than two and a half years as a Navy Seabee in the 110th Construction Battalion. He spent his entire overseas deployment working on projects to improve the drinking water supply for troops and to manufacture pavement for airport runways that would get America's fleet of airplanes off the ground and into battle.
One of their first projects on the Marianna Islands was to take salt water from the ocean, run it through a boiler system and catch the steam to use as drinking water for soldiers, Jenkins said.
"The Japanese used sugar cane to run the boiler, but we transformed it to run on gas," he added. "We also used the boilers to make up the asphalt."
Jenkins served as a manager over a group of black men in his battalion. Their job was to use air hammers and break up the coral rock found along the ocean.
"It was scraped up to make asphalt runways on Tinian," he said.
Shrouded in secrecy
The Japanese had control of the Mariana Islands up until 1944, when U.S. troops invaded and eventually gained control.
"When the Marines went into an island, they shot the limbs right out of the trees because that's where the Japanese were hiding and killing soldiers," Jenkins said. "The soldiers would walk through the trees and get shot in the back."
After the Americans gained control of the island, they were still in danger.
Jenkins and his fellow soldiers stayed in camps on Tinian, and one time a small bomb landed just a few feet from where he slept. To protect himself, he rolled into a foxhole that was dug right along side his tent.
It was on Tinian where the atomic bombs were assembled that eventually caused massive destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
"I didn't get in on it, but that's where it was done," said Jenkins as he told of the big airplanes that brought in parts for assembling the nuclear weapons.
Jenkins said there was so much secrecy surrounding the atomic bombs that it was unlikely the pilots knew the kind of firepower they were carrying.
"I still say today, the ones that claimed they dropped it, they didn't know it until they dropped it," he said.
Jenkins, who was friends with one of the pilots on Tinian, was snuck onto an airplane after the atomic bomb was dropped and given a fly-over to see the destruction.
"We had taken a lot of fruit along and dumped it where we thought the Americans were that were held prisoners," he said, adding that parachutes were attached to the food to provide for a softer landing.
From above, Jenkins was surprised by the damage caused by the atomic bomb.
"It looked like a big hole of ashes," he said. "That was about what it looked like -- all the way around."
Jenkins said they didn't fly too low for fear of being shot down by any Japanese soldiers that may have survived the bomb.
Life goes on
During his time on the Mariana Islands, Jenkins said they lost just two members of their unit. One soldier was driving a Jeep to the mess hall when he was struck in the head and killed by material during a planned blast. Another soldier committed suicide after receiving a letter from his girl saying that she had married another man.
It was also during this time that Jenkins became engaged to his sweetheart, Elaine. He had sent a letter to his best friend, Kenny McNab, asking him to go and purchase an engagement ring. McNab bought the ring and delivered it to Elaine and, though she can't remember what happened next, she's pretty sure she sent her beau a letter to accept his proposal.
Jenkins received his honorable discharge on March 1, 1946. After spending an extra week in California, he boarded the train and headed back home. He stepped off the train at the Worthington Depot to awaiting family, glad to see him home to stay.
In March 1947, Jenkins married Elaine, and a year after that, they moved onto her parents' farm southwest of Bigelow and he learned to be a farmer. After moving into Bigelow in 1965, they continued to farm the land until his retirement about 20 years ago.
Jenkins had an older brother, Kenneth, who also served in World War II. He served in the Army and was stationed in Germany. Together, the men have signed up for Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight, slated to take our region's veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial April 30-May 1.