On Aug. 15, 1945, Army Air Corps Capt. Jerry Yellin landed his P-51 Mustang fighter plane on U.S.-occupied Iwo Jima after having rained down bombs over Tokyo. After he emerged from his cockpit, he learned the horrible truth: The war had ended three hours before he dropped his bombs, but word had not reached his fighter group in time.
What’s more, his good friend, 1st Lt. Phil Schlamberg, had disappeared in a cloud bank while escaping Japanese aircraft, making Schlamberg the final official U.S. combat death of the Second World War.
“I led my flight of four airplanes into some heavy weather. Then I came out of the clear skies, and he was gone. Phil was gone off my wing,” Mr. Yellin, 93, told The Washington Times from his home in Florida. “And the hardest part was learning that when we started to strafe the [Japanese] airfields, the war had been over for three hours. We never got that message.”
“The Last Fighter Pilot,” a new book by Don Brown, details how Mr. Yellin enlisted on his 18th birthday, Feb. 15, 1942, and within a few years found himself on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima after the Marines had cleared out — or so they believed — enemy forces so that Allies could use the island as the launch pad for the final aerial assault on Japan.
“I never thought that these guys were killed, [just] transferred to another squadron and that we’d meet again one day,” Mr. Yellin said of the 16 airmen he flew with who were killed in combat, including Schlamberg and two other wingmen. “That’s the way I got through the war. The seriousness of the loss wasn’t felt until after the war when I came home, and then it was very difficult.”
Mr. Yellin, a native of New Jersey, will be in the District this weekend for The Spirit of ‘45 annual ceremony commemorating the spontaneous celebrations that broke out when news of the war’s end reached the home front. Mr. Yellin will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the National World War II Memorial on Sunday.
But even 72 years after cheers broke out as the most destructive war in the history of humankind came to an end, Mr. Yellin says the names and faces of the friends he lost remain.
“You never forget the things that happen when you’re in combat,” he said. “I was brought up [being taught] ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and then I was given a uniform and a license to kill. And we did that — 16 million of us did that.”
“Everybody knows today what post-traumatic stress disorder is. I spoke to ‘the guys’ at night. I thought about suicide. I couldn’t hold a job,” he said, adding that only his love and devotion to his wife and four children kept him from taking his own life.
He even tried to outrun the nightmares: The family moved 12 times in the U.S. and once to Israel in 1966 as the Vietnam conflict was heating up.
“I was an opponent of the Vietnam War. I had four sons and felt that if they were going to fight, they were going to fight in a war that had some meaning to me as a Jewish man,” Mr. Yellin said. “So that’s why we went to Israel.”
The Yellin family returned stateside after the 1967 Six-Day War. Mr. Yellin’s demons came back too. It wasn’t until he began practicing Transcendental Meditation in 1975, three decades after V-J Day, that a sense of peace began to return to his daily life.
While PTSD used to be discussed in hushed tones, the culture of addressing the condition has changed in the 21st century. Mr. Yellin now shares his experiences with military, police and firefighters to assure them there is light beyond the darkness.
“When they put that uniform on, they make a commitment to other people that they’re wiling to give their lives to protect other people,” he said, adding that the guilt of survival when colleagues fall in the line of duty can be paralyzing.
In recreating the horrifying conditions of the final months of the war, “The Last Fight Pilot” recounts moments of almost absurd normalcy. One such anecdote sees a dentist from Georgia inviting Mr. Yellin and some of the other Jewish soldiers to a Seder in the shadow of Mt. Suribachi.
“There were foxholes all around us. There was a rabbi there, wearing a tallit, and he conducted a ceremony,” Mr. Yellin said, his voice animated. “They had Passover wine, they had matzo.
“There weren’t too many Jewish marines. There weren’t too many Jewish fighter pilots. But we all attended a Seder, and it was a beautiful, solemn moment.”
Although the Allies were unquestionably united in the cause of defeating Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and fascist Italy, prejudice among the ranks of soldiers was startlingly rampant. But Mr. Yellin said the way he and the other Jewish GIs combatted unchecked anti-Semitism in the service was to basically try even harder.
“I had to be three times as good. The Tuskegee Airmen had to be three times as good,” Mr. Yellin said of the famous all-black unit. “We had racial problems then, we have racial problems now. We have anti-Semitism now.”
Mr. Yellin, who describes himself today as nonreligious, believes that it is religion, more than any other factor, that has been the cause of most of the wars throughout human history. It is the willingness to take another life in the name of differing beliefs, he says, that is the root cause of conflict.
“It’s evil to kill, period. We’re all entitled to a life,” he said. “ISIS is evil today. The Christians killed many people for what they believed. Hitler believed that the Jews weren’t worth living [and] killed 6 million. English-speaking people invaded this country in the 1600s [and] killed American Indians because they didn’t believe in the religion of the people who conquered the country.
“War is the most destructive force that man knows, and it’s been going on forever. It’s the height of evil,” he said, adding that, despite his own personal spiritual growth, he is often pessimistic about the future of humankind.
Mr. Yellin also takes issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, thereby uprooting Palestinian families, as well as End Timers who believe the Jews must take over all of Israel so that Christ can return to Earth.
Mr. Yellin has returned to Iwo Jima on several occasions, mostly recently for the 70th anniversary of the war’s conclusion in 2015, shaking hands with former Japanese soldiers and their descendents. His son Robert even married the daughter of a World War II kamikaze pilot and lives with her in Japan.
Those experiences helped Mr. Yellin get past his hatred of his former enemies.
“When I landed there on March 7, 1945, there wasn’t a blade of grass. And there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun. The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away,” he said.
But the once battle-scarred island now is populated with trees — a fitting tribute to America’s peacetime alliance with Japan.
“The war was a horrific moment in time. All of us are sinners, but we’re all human beings,” said Mr. Yellin, who hopes to return again to Iwo Jima in 2018. “The fact is we’re all people. We’re all exactly the same in the eyes of nature.”
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.