Jenkins, 64, left the prison at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka and was taken by helicopter to the Camp Zama Army base, where he was to join his family for several days before moving to his wife's hometown in northern Japan.
"Forty years is a long time," a sobbing Jenkins, still in uniform, told The Associated Press in exclusive comments after he arrived at Camp Zama. "My plan is to stay in Japan, if they will accept me. I want to go back to the United States, but only once. With my wife, I'll live in Japan, with my family."
The release ends the longest desertion case on U.S. record. Jenkins testified in his Nov. 3 court-martial that he fled the Army on Jan. 5, 1965, to avoid service in Vietnam.
Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, North Carolina, said he had intended to cross into North Korea, then defect to the Soviet Embassy and eventually make his way back to the United States.
Instead, the communist regime in Pyongyang kept him there for 39 years along with three other American deserters. He was used as a propaganda tool in broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and was forced to teach English to North Korean military officer cadets, he said.
Two of the other three Americans have since died, but the third, James Dresnock of Richmond, Virginia, still lives in the North. Dresnock was a private when he crossed into North Korea in 1962.
During his court-martial, Jenkins described a hardscrabble existence in the isolated Stalinist state.
"We slept on the floor, there was most often no electricity and we had no running water," he testified. "We were allowed to bathe once a month, though in the summer we bathed more often in the river."
Jenkins said they were forced to study — in Korean — the philosophy of then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung for 10 hours a day. If they didn't memorize enough, they were forced to study 16 hours on Sunday, their only day off.
"I longed to leave that place every day," Jenkins told the court.
A turning point came in 1980, when he met and married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 to teach Japanese language and culture to its spies.
The marriage was what eventually got Jenkins his freedom.
In an unprecedented summit in 2002 with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country had kidnapped Soga and several other Japanese and allowed her and the four other survivors to return home.
Jenkins initially stayed behind, but Soga's effort to reunite her family generated great sympathy in Japan — and in July, Tokyo arranged for Jenkins and his two North Korea-born daughters to join Soga in Jakarta, Indonesia.
They were then flown back to Japan, ostensibly because he needed emergency medical care for an abdominal problem.
Jenkins was discharged from a Tokyo hospital on Sept. 11 and immediately turned himself in to American authorities at Camp Zama, the U.S. Army's Japan headquarters. After arranging a plea bargain, he was convicted at the base just south of Tokyo and sentenced to a month in prison. He was released five days early for good behavior.
"We're very happy that he's out and free," said Jenkins' brother-in-law, Lee Harrell, in Weldon, N.C. Harrell, who is married to Jenkins' younger sister Pat, said the family would welcome a visit from him to the United States.
Jenkins now needs to wait to be processed out of the military, but that could be completed as early as Monday, U.S. military sources said.
Even after that, Jenkins may still not be completely separated from the Army; until his automatic appeal process is completed, he could remain on "involuntary excess leave" status for one to two years.
Jenkins' release ends the longest desertion case on U.S. record. Although American deserters from the 1940s are still on the military's wanted list, none has turned himself in.
By Eric Talmadge