Captain Jerry Yellin is known as ‘The Last Fighter Pilot’ because he was the man who flew the final combat mission of World War II. This brave hero’s story about his time in the war is absolutely incredible. But here he shares what happened when he returned home, and it’s simply amazing.
When Jerry was just 17 years old, he decided he wanted to fly fighter planes against the Japanese. His parents pleaded with him to change his mind, but he knew it was his duty to protect his country. He had no fear of dying so he enlisted as soon as he turned 18.
This photo of Jerry was taken in Iwo Jima when he was just 21 years old.
“Seventy-three years later, the memories are so fresh…in my mind, and people just don’t know about these things. They just don’t know about them.”
Jerry shared, “I was on Iwo Jima, 8 square miles of land….67,000 marines fighting against 23,000 Japanese–90,000 soldiers.” He continued, “And when I landed with my cockpit open, I smelled the smell of death. And it never went away from me.” The smell of 28,000 bodies, rotting in the sun was understandably simply too much for Jerry to bear.
“I flew with 16 guys who didn’t come home in my squadron.” He continued, “Three of my wingmen were killed–three of my wingmen. It’s probably the most memorable, the most precious, time of my life was to be with all the guys who were protecting me and I was protecting them–fighting for my country.”
“I don’t regret one moment that I served in the war.” Jerry continued. “The thirty years after I can’t talk about.” What Jerry had seen, what he had experienced–it was all too much for Jerry to bear. He mourned the lives of all the men he’d served with and lost, and didn’t know how to cope with the grief he felt.
Jerry went on to explain that he believed he was a ‘basket case’ when he got home and was unable to even hold down a job. Jerry was suffering from a very bad case of PTSD, and unfortunately, this was something folks just didn’t really talk about back in the day. Jerry did have a wife, Helene, and a family including four sons, but he couldn’t tell them anything about how tortured his life truly was.
“I didn’t speak to my family for 45 years about what I did.”
Then in 1983, he was asked to go to Japan. Jerry thought they were crazy! “Why?”, he thought, would he ever want to go back there again? Jerry explained, "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."
He returned home to tell his wife about the ridiculous invitation. I’m sure he was expecting her to side with him and understand his reluctance. But something entirely different happened. Helene pointed her finger at him and said, “Jerry, you never asked me if I wanted to go to Japan.”
The Last Fighter Pilot Returns to Japan
So the two of them went to Japan. Jerry was completely overwhelmed by what he saw there and how it made him feel. He told People, "I was blown away. It brought back a lot of memories and I could picture the bombs dropping everywhere, it was hard, but we had incredible experiences with the people and food and scenery."Jerry knew he had to share what they’d experienced with his family.
The two returned to the states where they gave their son Robert an incredible gift. Robert was about to graduate from college, and his parents gave him a gift to visit Japan for six weeks.
Shortly after graduating, Robert went to Japan. But he never came home.
While Robert was there he talked to his dad, explaining that he’d met a Japanese woman, Takako Yamakawa, and that he wanted to get married. Jerry immediately asked, “What does her father say?”
Robert explained that her father, Taro, was a former Kamikaze pilot, and he refused to even meet him.
It took seven months before her father would agree to meet with Robert. Even after they did meet, Taro refused to talk. Finally, her father asked Robert a series of questions.
Taro: “How old is your father?”
Taro: “Was he in the war?”
Taro: “What did he do?”
Robert: “He was a pilot.”
Taro: “What did he fly?”
Robert: “Over Japan.”
And that ended the meeting.
Then her father went home and did something none of them expected. He said to his wife, Hatsue, “make the wedding.”
Hatsue began yelling at her husband in complete disbelief! She yelled at Taro that for 43 years he had talked of nothing but how much he hated the Americans, and now he wanted their beloved daughter to marry one! She demanded to know why he would approve of this wedding to a foreigner. And he answered.
Taro said, “Any man that could fly a P-51 against the Japanese and live must be a brave man. I want the blood of that man to flow through the blood of our grandchildren.”
What an incredible story of bravery, healing, respect and forgiveness!
The Last Fighter Pilot Befriends A Kamikaze Pilot
For years, Jerry visited his family in Japan often and even befriended his son’s father-in-law before Taro’s death three years ago. The two war veterans had agreed to meet after the wedding. They went with a translator to a hot bath and spoke about everything from their wartime experiences, spiritual beliefs and education," Jerry told People. "We talked for four hours and he said he never knew there was someone else in the world that felt the way he did about life.
"From that moment on we bonded and became close, close family." Jerry added, “I miss him every day.”
"I went from thinking a group of people were my enemy to finding my best friend," says Yellin. "It's a lesson to remember that at the end of the day we are all human and have so much love to give."
Now, Jerry spends his days telling people about the dangers of PTSD and the importance of recognizing and treating it.
Learn more about Jerry’s life in the book, The Last Fighter Pilot.
WATCH: Interview with The Last Fighter Pilot
credit: Regnery Publishing