21st in a series
On April 7, 1945, Jerry Yellin and his fellow P-51 pilots of fighter squadron 78 took off from Iwojima to escort B-29 bombers en route to Tokyo.
Over the capital, Yellin saw the B-29s unload their lethal cargo. Little fires quickly spread to engulf wide areas, sending up smoke and debris, the 84-year-old veteran recalled.
“I never thought that there were people on the ground. This was my enemy and this was the bombing of the city,” Yellin told The Japan Times in Shizuoka last month during a visit to attend a ceremony commemorating Japanese and American war dead.
“Japanese were not people to me.”
His hatred of Japan dated to 1937, when Yellin saw newsreel footage of a gutted Nanjing, China, after it was bombed by Japanese forces. He recalled the image of a little girl sitting in front of burning buildings.
Japan had invaded that year and slaughtered vast numbers of people. The episode would later be called the Nanjing Massacre.
“I said to myself that kind of people are the Japanese people, who would do something like that to somebody else,” Yellin said.
He was in a New Jersey store at age 17 on Dec. 7, 1941, when he heard Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. He became further enraged.
“The Japanese had made a trip from Japan and bombed American soil. It’s terrible, terrible. Everybody in America hated Japan those days,” Yellin said.
“Germany didn’t attack us. But Japan attacked us.”
In February 1942, Yellin enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, hoping to become a fighter pilot to do battle with Japan.
After graduating from military flying school in August 1943, Yellin was sent to Hawaii to be a flight instructor.
In March 1945, he was sent into combat, logging 19 missions over Japan, including raids on Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Osaka.
When Yellin rotated back to the U.S., he looked up relatives of his comrades who would never be returning.
“That was very difficult, for them to see me alive and (to know) their children have been killed,” he said.
Yellin went on to marry and have a family. Now a grandfather, he also found success in business and has traveled around the world. But the war continued to haunt him.
“I had nightmares at night and I was sad. It was sad for me to be alive. It still bothers me,” said Yellin, who believes profits are an underlying reason why wars are waged.
The Pacific War broke out because the United States demanded that Japan withdraw from China and stopped the flow of oil and iron to Japan, he said.
“And so the Japanese reasoned that if they destroyed the ships that were gonna do the embargo, then America will negotiate,” Yellin said.
Just as the Pacific War for Japan was all about oil, the war in Iraq is also about oil, he said.
“It’s profit, profit, land or power or oil or profit. If you take profit out of war, (you) take the war out of the world,” he said.
Yellin’s hatred of Japan ended in 1983.
A real estate consultant, he was invited by a bank to come to Japan and talk about investments in the U.S. He was reluctant to make the trip.
But since Yellin’s wife, Helene, loved Japanese architecture, gardens and books about Japan, the couple came in October that year for the first time.
Yellin recalled strolling with his wife in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district on a Sunday morning.
“I saw for the first time . . . well-dressed people, orderly people saying hello to me, truly saying hello. And it was the first time in my life that I realized that on the ground there were real, fine human beings in Japan.”
Helene said their son, Robert, then a college student, would like Japan. The couple soon had him make the trip.
Robert came to Japan the same year on a home-stay program. He returned the next year to teach English at private language schools in Shizuoka Prefecture and other locations. He has since been living in Shizuoka and now runs a ceramics gallery.
In 1988, Robert married a Japanese. Her father had been in the Imperial Japanese Army during the war.
The father had told his daughter he would allow her to marry any Japanese but never a foreigner, and especially not an American, according to Yellin.
The father’s attitude changed when he learned Robert’s father was a P-51 pilot.
According to Yellin, the father said: “Anybody who could fly a P-51 against Japanese and survive must be a brave man, and I want the blood of that man to flow through the brains of my grandchildren.”
The father gave his daughter permission to marry Robert.
When the two families met at Shizuoka’s Mishima Taisha Shrine for the wedding, Yellin became a relative of the Japanese family.
Early on in his son’s marriage, Yellin still had a nightmare: His grandchildren in Japan are flying across the Pacific to drop bombs on the U.S., and his other grandchildren in the U.S. were bombing Japan. “I couldn’t let that happen,” Yellin said.
Now that Yellin has three grandchildren in Japan, the land that was once his enemy is now his second home. “We’re all the same, all the same,” he said.
In this occasional series, we interview firsthand witnesses of Japan’s march to war and its crushing defeat, who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.