World War II veteran Jerry Yellin has a new mission: keeping the memory of the conflict alive.
As Hawaii prepares to mark 75 years since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into the war in December, Yellin is reaching out to children to tell his tale.
Popularly known as the fighter pilot who flew the last combat mission of the war, Yellin, at the age of 92, remains a captivating storyteller.
“I’m just an ordinary man who’s had an extraordinary experience in life,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in Tokyo last week.
This is a statement that reflects his modest demeanor and the respect that is often associated with his generation, something that he hopes to show youth on both sides of the Pacific soon.
“I’m putting together an international symposium of eighth- and ninth-graders that will meet together to discuss the war in depth, so that they will know what it was all about,” Yellin said. “It’s called the Philip Schlamberg International Symposium of Peace and Understanding.”
Schlamberg was Yellin’s wingman for the fateful last combat mission. He was also the war’s last casualty in the fighting.
Yellin hopes to use the symposium, slated for Aug. 14 in the U.S., to speak of his experiences during the war and to issue a warning about the dangers of nuclear conflict.
“Science has brought us to the position where the smallest nuclear weapon in the American nuclear arsenal is 1,000 times bigger than the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “And if we go to nuclear war, we’re going to wipe out the ability of the world to sustain life. Period. End of conversation.
“And we’re close to that with what’s going on now. I’m reading in the headlines of 2016 the same headlines that I read 80 years ago when I was 12 years old about terrorism, about killing for what you believe, about race, about religion, about the differences between human beings. And we are no different. We are all human beings in the eye of nature.”
Still, while he now warns of the dangers of nuclear destruction, Yellin, like many veterans who fought in the Pacific, remains unwavering in his belief that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary.
“Japanese people don’t understand that when we dropped the atomic bombs, we saved a million American lives. … and millions more Japanese were gonna die,” he said. “The war ended because we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions and millions of Japanese were prepared to die for the Emperor. And they don’t understand that, they don’t teach that in school. And that’s one of my missions, to teach the young people.”
Now, Yellin said, “it’s time for the story of healing and peace to be told between our countries because of nuclear weapons. These are very dangerous times,” Yellin said.
Yellin has also been invited to speak at a Dec. 6 conference in Honolulu to plan for a separate annual symposium each August on the anniversary of WWII’s end that will bring together youth leaders to discuss the legacy of postwar Japan-U.S. relations, according to Warren Hegg of the nonprofit organization Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive.
Hegg said a group of approximately 30 junior high school students from Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, are expected to participate in this year’s program in the Hawaiian capital, and organizers are eager to welcome additional youth participants from Japan.
Nagaoka and Honolulu, sister cities since 2012, also share a unique link: Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who served as commander-in-chief of the Japanese combined fleet that conducted the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a native of Nagaoka.