(JTA) — Jerry Yellin, who flew the last combat mission of World War II and later helped fellow veterans overcome their trauma, has died.
Yellin died Thursday in Florida at the home of one of his four sons after battling lung cancer. He was 93.
Yellin, a lieutenant in the 78th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces, was leading an attack on Japanese airfields on Aug. 15, 1945 when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. When he returned to his base on Iwo Jima, Yellin learned that a cease-fire had taken hold, and that his squadron had not received the coded signal informing them to halt their attack, the last of the war.
Yellin’s wingman, Lt. Philip Schlamberg, 19, of Brooklyn, who Yellin had mentored, was shot down during that last raid, after having a premonition that he would not come out of the mission alive.
“Because of our common Jewish heritage and because he was one of our younger pilots, I had naturally taken Phil under my wing,” Yellin recalled in “The Last Fighter Pilot,” a biography written by Don Brown with Yellin’s collaboration and published this year, according to the New York Times.
He was greatly disturbed by having witnessed the carnage on Iwo Jima where he said “there wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun,” and later having 16 members of his squadron killed on missions.
Some 6,800 American servicemen and over 20,000 Japanese were killed in the battle for the Pacific island.
Yellin was discharged from the army in December 1945 with the rank of captain. His military honors included the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, and in recent years he served as the national spokesman for the Spirit of ’45, a nonprofit organization that promotes the legacy of World War II veterans, according to Stars and Stripes, a military publication.
For years after his discharge, suffering from what is now known to be post-traumatic stress disorder, Yellin struggled to stay employed and moved many times in the United States and relocated for a time to Israel, partly in protest of the Vietnam War, according to Stars and Stripes.
He received some relief through Transcendental Meditation, which his wife urged him to try after she saw the practice’s originator, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
Yellin spoke to other veterans who struggled to adapt to civilian life, and in 2010 he co-founded Operation Warrior Wellness, a division of the David Lynch Foundation that helps veterans learn Transcendental Meditation. Yellin received support in promotional videos by actress Scarlett Johansson, a grandniece of Schlamberg.
Yellin was born and grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and enlisted in the military two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on his 18th birthday.
Yellin’s son moved to Japan after college and married a Japanese woman whose father had trained as a kamikaze pilot and worked at an airfield during World War II. The fathers bonded over discussing their flying strategies and experiences during the war with the help of a translator, and became life-long friends, according to Stars and Stripes.
His wife of 65 years, Helene, died in 2015. He is survived by four children, David Yellin of Winter Haven, Florida, Steven Yellin of Orlando, Florida; Michael Yellin of Montclair, New Jersey; and Robert Yellin of Kyoto, Japan; a sister; and six grandchildren.