WWII’s ‘last fighter pilot’ relives fateful flight — and the PTSD that followed
New York Post
28th May 2017
On April 7, 1945, five months before the end of World War II, Capt. Jerry Yellin and his squadron flew over Japan and bombed it, lighting up “a big square of fire” 15, 000 feet below. “Little fires became big fires, and it never occurred to me, ever, that there were human beings on the ground,” says Yellin, 93, speaking to The Post in the to Memorial Day.
“They were Japanese. They were terrible people. They did horrific things in China, and I saw horrific things done in Iwo Jima to dead Marines — faces bashed in to get gold out of their teeth.
They just were not human beings to me then. ” Several months later, he would pilot the final mission of the war, a flight detailed in an upcoming book, by Don Brown (Regnery History) due out July 31. While that last flight coincided with the Japanese surrender, it also cost Yellin a friend — and was the capper on a time that nearly destroyed his life.
For Yellin, the war years sparked a battle with stress disorder, which he finally overcame in the after learning Transcendental Meditation. Today, his voice is as clear and strong as any younger man’s, he speaks to groups about the importance of recognizing and conquering PTSD for veterans. His feelings on the Japanese have changed, as well.
These days, Yellin has a Japanese and three Japanese grandkids. Yellin grew up in Hillside, NJ. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked in a steel factory, hoping to save enough money for college.
On Dec. 7, he returned home from working the night shift to learn about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and decided immediately to enlist in the Air Force. His parents tried to dissuade him, but the was adamant.
It was my duty, as a young man, to serve my country. “My country was attacked by a foreign country,” he says plainly. “It was my duty, as a young man, to serve my country.
” A flying enthusiast who made models of planes, he enlisted on Feb. 15, 1942, his 18th birthday. When he took his eye exam, it was found he had vision in one eye, which would have prevented him from flying.
The doctor told him to sit in the dark, eat carrots and not read anything, then retake the test three days later. Yellin went the doctor one better, making an appeal to his mother, who worked for the draft board. “I asked her to bring me a copy of the eye chart,” he says.
She did, and he memorized it. He passed the test. He became a military pilot and named his plane the Dorrie R after his girlfriend at the time, Doris Rosen.
While Yellin was stationed at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, Calif. a group of celebrities arrived to entertain the troops, including actress Bonita Granville. Yellin, then 19, was assigned to be her escort.
Talking afterward, Granville expressed a desire to have a plane named after her — and made a proposition. “She was sitting across from me and looking me up and down,” he recalls, “and she said, ‘You know, Lieutenant, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable and all the stars in Hollywood have airplanes named after them. I would do anything — I mean, I would do anything — to have an airplane named after me.
’ I said, ‘I’m sorry. I already promised the name to another lady.’ ” Yellin now laughs at his naiveté.
“I was 19. I didn’t know what she was talking about,” he says. “I sometimes regretted what I said and what I didn’t do, but that’s the way I was.
” But Yellin excelled at flying, and became a wingman in the 78th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Force. He felt a natural affinity for it, as if “connected” to the plane. This left him, he says, with a fearless confidence.
“I became the airplane every time I flew, and I absolutely knew I was gonna survive the war,” he says. “I had no fears of dying, no fears of being hurt — I just flew fearlessly. I flew as the airplane — I was the airplane.
Every maneuver was easy for me to do, instantaneously. ” By contrast, he says some pilots flew “mechanically,” having to “think about giving it throttle or turning right. ” “You could see guys who had to think,” he says, “and most of them got killed.
Some guys knew they were gonna get killed. ” One of the pilots Yellin mentored was 1st Lt. Philip Schlamberg, a dark and lanky who had recently graduated as valedictorian at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln HS.
Not only did Schlamberg test at a genius IQ level, he was a guitar and harmonica player. He had hoped to attend college before enlisting but had grown up poor and couldn’t afford tuition or books. “Because of our common Jewish heritage, and because he was one of our younger pilots, I had naturally taken Phil under my wing,” Yellin says in the book.
Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, and after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9 of that year, it was expected that the war would end within days. But Japan was slow to surrender.
So, on Aug. 14, it was announced to the 78th that its missions would continue, and that if the war’s end came while pilots were in the air, the word “Utah” would be broadcast over the radio as the signal for the men to return to base. During that meeting, Schlamberg leaned over and said he had a gut feeling that if they flew their next mission, he wouldn’t return.
Still, when given the chance to get a waiver, Schlamberg refused. The mission called for Yellin and his team to fly their planes to the Japanese mainland. He told Schlamberg to stay on his wing and tried to build his confidence, assuring him they had the clear advantage in numbers and support on the ground.
No code word was heard, so the team headed for the mainland. “We flew up, went in, and strafed the airfields near Tokyo,” Yellin says. Despite facing a stream of tracer bullets from the ground, he and his crew accomplished the mission with no casualties.
When it came time to return, he could still see Schlamberg on his wing. He gave a and Schlamberg returned it. They banked south and headed for home.
Approaching the coast, Yellin faced heavy clouds. He focused on his navigational controls and made it through safely. When he emerged, Schlamberg’s plane was gone.
“He was not on my wing,” Yellin says. “There was no visual sighting of anything, no radio. He was just gone.
” By the time Yellin landed, the war had been over for three hours. The code word had been broadcast, but for reasons unclear, it hadn’t reached the planes. Eleven men Yellin flew with in the war, including Schlamberg, were killed in combat.
Schlamberg was one of the last Americans killed in World War II. (Schlamberg was a of actress Scarlett Johansson, whose mother, Melanie Sloan, wrote a foreword for “The Last Fighter Pilot. ”) Despite seeing his friends die, Yellin says he never gave in to fear.
“You had to forget about it,” he says. “If I thought about death or being killed, I never would have been able to fly. You had to let it go.
These guys, in my mind, were transferred to another squadron. I’d meet them again some day. That’s how I felt.
” The postwar years were not kind to him. Married to a woman named Helene in 1949, Yellin, without knowing it, suffered from PTSD for 30 years. He lived in 17 places around New Jersey, California, Florida and Israel and couldn’t hold a job, making most of his living gambling on golf.
“I was an amateur golfer who gambled with guys who thought they could play better than me,” he says. Yellin, who has four sons ages 57 to 67, blames himself for causing his wife emotional pain that led to a suicide attempt. He says she “suffered tremendously because of me,” and he questions how good a father he was.
“I was a guy for a long time . . .
because of the war,” he says. He credits learning Transcendental Meditation at age 51 in 1975 with turning his life around. “I learned to meditate, and I looked at my life, and I became a decent person,” he says.
“I was all about myself for 30 years. I made terrible decisions. ” In the years since, he says, he worked in the building industry and as a consultant to banks.
He has lived in several places, including in Fairfield, Iowa, a center for Transcendental Meditation, and moved back to Florida in October 2015 after Helene died from Alzheimer’s disease that year. I was a guy for a long time . .
. because of the war. It was as a bank consultant that he returned to Japan in 1983.
Yellin was startled by the warm welcome he received. “There were young kids, 8 or 9 years old, giving me the ‘V for victory’ [salute],” he says. “People treated me, an American, as if I was Japanese.
They bought me sake, they took me to restaurants. ” Later that year, Yellin and Helene treated their youngest son, Robert, then a college senior, to a trip to Japan. Robert loved the experience so much he returned in 1984, signing a contract to teach English, and hasn’t lived in the US since.
He married a Japanese woman, and they have three children. Yellin visits frequently. These days, Yellin speaks to groups about PTSD and resources for veterans, including Transcendental Meditation.
While he was to fly and fight in the 1940s, the years have given him a different perspective. “If you wanna stop war, everybody would go to war naked,” he says. “Then nobody would know who to shoot.
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