The long and circuitous life of 92-year-old World War II veteran Jerry Yellin reads like a work of fiction.
From his time as a fighter pilot during the war, strafing enemy sites from a P-51 and escorting B-29s over Japan, to watching his half-Japanese granddaughter lay a wreath this March in remembrance of victims of one of the war’s fiercest battles, it’s no stretch to say he has come full circle.
But for Yellin, known as the fighter pilot who flew the last combat mission of World War II, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
His wingman that fateful day — which he seems to recall so clearly — was the war’s last casualty: Philip Schlamberg of Brooklyn, New York, a fallen pilot who would go on to be known as the great uncle to actress Scarlett Johansson.
Fully 16 of Yellin’s comrades were killed during the war, including 11 in the skies over Japan.
“I watched B-29s drop bombs on Tokyo, square miles of the city was on fire,” Yellin, 92, told The Japan Times in an interview. “It never occurred to me that the Japanese were human beings or people. They were our enemy and we were at war. You go to war, you learn how to use weapons to kill other people, and that’s what war’s about.”
Above Japan, U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Yellin unleashed those weapons on his target: the enemy, the Japanese. The B-29s would drop one or two big bombs or 1,000 or 2,000 small ones, it didn’t matter — whatever got the job done.
By August 1945, Yellin, who had been stationed on Iwo Jima since early March carrying out bomber escorts and strafing runs, had been a cog for five months in the mighty American machine making war on the Japanese home islands.
The U.S., Britain and China had already released in late July the Potsdam Declaration outlining the terms of Japan’s surrender and threatening its “prompt and utter destruction” if the warning went unheeded.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Yellin returned to Iwo Jima, and was greeted with the news of Hiroshima. The Americans had harnessed the power of the atom and unleashed it on the city. Thousands were killed instantly, both civilian and military.
“I was strafing airfields on Aug. 6 near Tokyo,” Yellin said. “I landed back on Iwo Jima and a fellow jumped on my wing and said ‘we dropped one bomb, wiped out a city, the war’s over.'”
But with Japanese communications in disarray and the exact impact of Hiroshima, and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, unknown, the conflict would drag on for another week.
It was then, on Aug. 13, that Yellin would lose Schlamberg, the last man killed in the war.
“I never thought about them as dead or gone,” Yellin said of his fallen compatriots. “I thought they were transferred. If I thought about them as being killed, I never would have been able to fly.”
After the war, for the better part of three decades, he suffered from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, scarred from what he saw and who he lost in the conflict.
“It was undiagnosed,” he said. “People said, ‘Well, just forget about it — the war’s over.’ Well, when you learn how to kill somebody and you kill somebody, kill the Japanese people, you flew with guys who died fighting for your country, you never get over it. It never goes away. Never.”
After discovering transcendental meditation in 1975, Yellin used it to beat back his depression. Eight years later, fate stepped in, once again thrusting Japan, his once-hated enemy, into the forefront of his life.
“In 1983, I was asked by the Mitsui Banking Group to go to Japan, and I looked at the guy who asked me like he was crazy,” Yellin said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to Japan.'”
Yellin’s wife, however, was having none of that.
“I came home, and I told my wife — she liked bonsai and liked the architecture — so I said I turned down the invite. And she said, ‘Jerry, you never asked me if I wanted to go to Japan.'”
Soon, they were on their way to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Arriving in the country, Yellin was shocked to see that the image of Japan that had been seared into his memory was no longer applicable.
“I was blown away by the civility and the culture,” he said. “I went out in the countryside and I was amazed at what kind of a country it was and what kind of people were there.”
So taken aback were Yellin and his wife that they decided to give their soon-to-graduate son, Robert, a six-week home-stay as a present a year later.
Thirty-two years on, the elder Yellin said, his son hasn’t come back yet.
But he has returned something to his father. Marrying the daughter of a former Japanese Zero pilot, he gave his father a Japanese family and three half-Japanese grandchildren.
“Japan is my home,” the elder Yellin said. “It’s as much a home to me as America. It changed my life dramatically. It changed my wife’s life dramatically. It changed my children’s and my family’s lives. I have three incredible grandchildren.”
Today, Yellin’s mission is to speak of this shift, to explain its necessity to the next generation.
Next month, he will visit Japan for eight days — his second visit in just four months — to discuss plans to bring several hundred Japanese schoolchildren to join U.S. students in a parade on Dec. 7 to mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He hopes to use this to mark the opening of an annual symposium, first between Americans and Japanese and ultimately including more nations.
Yellin said this effort will start with his own grandchildren.
“I want them to be the ones who lead, because they know about war from their other grandfather and about war from their American grandfather, the two who fought each other, hated each other, and became family,” he said. “And that’s an example that has to be shown to the world.”