It was Aug. 13, 1945, four days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan had suffered unimaginable destruction, but Emperor Hirohito refused to surrender.
Capt. Jerry Yellin, an American fighter pilot, was ordered to fly a combat mission the next day over the Japanese city of Nagoya, where his 16-plane squadron would strike targets from the air. As his military unit was briefed on its assignment, Yellin’s wing man, a 19-year-old named Phil Schlamberg, leaned over and told Yellin he had an inexplicable feeling he was going to die.
“If we go on this mission, I’m not coming back,” Yellin recalls his friend saying.
Despite those doubts — and no matter how close the end of war seemed — Schlamberg refused to abandon the mission. He packed his clothes, paid his debts and wrote to his family, Yellin said.
The next morning, on Aug. 14, 1945, Yellin told Schlamberg to fly alongside the wing of his P-51 Mustang fighter plane. He gave Schlamberg a thumbs-up. Schlamberg returned the gesture. Together they entered the blustery clouds.
It wasn’t until eight hours later, after Yellin landed back on Iwo Jima and exited his cockpit, that he learned he had just flown the final combat mission of World War II. The news was a bitter relief: Japan had surrendered and the war was over. But the surrender was announced three hours before the planes would descend over Japanese land and begin striking targets. Word that the war was won had not reached the pilots, who had listened for the code word “Utah” to abort their mission. The command never came.
Schlamberg, Yellin said, would be the last man killed in combat in World War II. All Yellin knows is that Schlamberg’s plane disappeared into a cloud bank. There was no radio call, no visual fire, no sighting of Japanese planes.
Now, at age 93, Yellin recalls those moments of the final combat mission with vivid clarity. The sounds and sights of war never leave you, he says.
He is among the few World War II veterans still alive to recount their stories, a sign that a world without them is approaching. As of 2014, only 1 million veterans witnessed the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. That’s a fraction of the 10.7 million alive for the anniversary in 1984.
Yellin was a 17-year-old in Hillside, N.J., working at a steel mill in December 1941. He had graduated high school that year with a scholarship to college but postponed his entrance to the spring so he could save some money. His plans for the coming years took a sharp detour when news broke that a Japanese fleet of more than 350 aircraft, in two waves, waged a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, destroying the battleship USS Arizona within 30 minutes.
“When I heard about Pearl Harbor, I had made up my mind,” he said. “I was gonna fly fighter planes against the Japanese. I had made up my mind.”
Yellin spent his childhood building model airplanes, but never considered flying for the military. He was shaken by the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, and enlisted two months later on his 18th birthday, Feb. 15, 1942.
Upon enlisting, Yellin recalls being asked if he was smart. “Why do I have to be smart?” he remembers saying. He took a mental test aimed for applicants with at least two years of college experience and passed.
It was the physical test that proved tricky — particularly the eye exam. He had 20/30 vision in one eye and failed as a result, he said. The doctor told him to go home, stay in a dark room, eat a lot of carrots, avoid reading anything and come back to retake the exam. Yellin found a loophole instead. He asked his mother, who worked for the draft board, to bring him home an eye chart and spent the next three days memorizing it. He passed.
He spent the next 18 months training. His Jewish faith, he discovered, meant he had to work especially hard to prove his worth as a fighter pilot. It wasn’t an unfamiliar predicament. Yellin said he suffered discrimination throughout his childhood and recalled how, during his freshman year of high school, boys he played football and basketball with on the street saw him leave a synagogue. A few days later, his family’s home was vandalized with swastikas.
“You know the black guys, they had to do three times as much work just to be accepted because they were black,” Yellin said. “And I had to be three times as good just to be accepted.”
Two weeks before his graduation as a fighter pilot from Luke Air Field in August 1943, Yellin was asked to take another eye exam. This time, he was given a different eye chart, he said. He failed.
“We’ll put you in transport,” Yellin recalls being told. Air Transport Command was a unit charged with delivering supplies to overseas forces and transporting personnel. “I said, ‘I’m a fighter.’”
He was told to go through the chain of command, and so he did. He eventually met with a high-ranking official.
“Anybody who has the guts to see me is a fighter pilot,” he recalls being told.
“A lot of us, we were a country at war, we were dedicated, patriotic young Americans,” Yellin said.
Yellin spent the rest of the war flying P-40, P-47 and P-51 combat missions in the Pacific with the 78th Fighter Squadron. He said he felt tremendous relief when the war was won. But he also felt a bit lost.
“I didn’t have any buddies to speak to, any airplanes to fly,” he said. “It was a very high, very private experience that nobody discussed, but we all felt it.”
His abrupt return to civilian life had challenges. He met his wife on a blind date, and while their marriage would last 65 years — until her death in 2016 — Yellin said she married a “screwed-up guy.” He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder for 30 years after the war ended and couldn’t hold the same job for very long. Those jobs ranged from consulting to flying commercial planes but none led to a stable career.
For a long time, he was unaware of the severity of his condition and the effect it had on his wife and four sons.
“Well, it’s never over. When you’ve been in combat it’s just plain never over,” he said of the war. “You can emulate the sights, the sounds of war. You can never, ever emulate the smell of 28,000 bodies in the sun in Iwo Jima.”
“The feeling that one has when a buddy dies? You just can’t emulate that. We have a burden civilians will never understand.”
Around 1975, Yellin began to overcome his PTSD through Transcendental Meditation, by closing his eyes for 20 minutes a day, twice a day, to remove the stress from his body. He’s traveled the country in recent years to teach the method to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through Operation Warrior Shield, an organization he co-founded that aims to help veterans and first responders overcome PTSD.
Actress Scarlett Johansson, whose great-uncle was Yellin’s wingman Schlamberg, has been a vocal supporter of the campaign.
Yellin understands no combat experience is the same: Research shows soldiers returning from Iraq appear to have higher levels of PTSD than those returning from Afghanistan. A possible explanation could be that those service members were exposed to more combat and the traumas that come with it.
In 1988, Yellin’s perspective on the war further transformed.
His youngest son, who moved to Japan in 1984 to teach English for a year but loved the country so much that he never returned, told his father he wanted to marry the daughter of a Japanese fighter pilot, Yellin said. The woman’s father, having fought Americans, hated them and for seven months refused to meet Yellin.
The father eventually began to ask questions about Yellin — about the type of plane he flew in the war, and where he flew it. When he found out Yellin flew a P-51, he was impressed, and said he would be proud to have his daughter marry someone with the blood of a P-51 pilot, even if he was American.
Now, Yellin visits Japan frequently, and said he has been warmly received at Japanese war commemoration ceremonies in Iwo Jima.
“We have to understand that killing for what you believe is the heart of evil. And it still goes on,” he said. “We’re all human beings together. I’m representing hopefully, humbly, honestly, the 16 million I served with in World War II.”