Jerry Yellin, pilot who flew the last WWII combat mission; at 93
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II, Jerry Yellin was a teenager living with his family in Hillside, N.J.
Having been intrigued by flight since he was a youngster — he constructed planes modeled on World War I aircraft — he joined the Army Air Corps in February 1942, on his 18th birthday, and became a fighter pilot.
On Aug. 15, 1945 — Aug. 14 in the United States — Mr. Yellin was leading an attack on Japanese airfields by four P-51 Mustang fighters from his 78th Fighter Squadron, as US airstrikes on Japan continued even after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier that month.
In the days following the atomic raids, all aircraft pounding Japan were to receive a coded signal from their bases if a Japanese surrender came. If one did, they were to halt their missions and turn back.
Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender at noon local time on Aug. 15, just as Mr. Yellin, flying from his base on Iwo Jima, was leading his four-plane attack.
But as he told it years later, for some reason that he could never determine, his planes did not receive the cease-fire message that had gone out to the US aircraft at the time.
It was only when he returned to Iwo Jima some three hours after completing the mission that he learned the war had formally ended while he was still blasting away.
Mr. Yellin died Thursday in Florida at 93. His death was announced by his son Steven.
In paying tribute to him, the Air Force’s chief of staff, General David Goldfein, called him the fighter pilot “who flew the last combat mission of World War II.”
But for Mr. Yellin, the war had not truly ended. He was afflicted by what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed the carnage on Iwo Jima and later having 16 members of his squadron killed on missions.
Iwo Jima was needed as a base for fighter planes that would escort long-range B-29 bombers based in the Mariana Islands while they raided Japan. It was conquered with a fearsome toll on both sides.
“Body parts were everywhere, and the smell of death permeated the air,” Mr. Yellin recalled in a May 2014 interview with the Library of Congress for its Veterans History Project, telling of his first weeks on Iwo Jima after the Marines had seized its airstrips from the Japanese.
Mr. Yellin, who later flew 19 missions over Japan, was especially grieved by a very personal loss on that final raid of the war.
His wingman, Lieutenant Philip Schlamberg, a 19-year-old New York City native he had helped mentor, never emerged from a cloud embankment that the four Mustangs of the 78th Squadron encountered upon crossing the coast of Japan en route home. Mr. Yellin speculated that he had been shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire.
“Because of our common Jewish heritage and because he was one of our younger pilots, I had naturally taken Phil under my wing,” Mr. Yellin recalled in “The Last Fighter Pilot,” a biography written by Don Brown with Mr. Yellin’s collaboration and published this year.
Earlier in 1945, in another particularly searing episode, a less experienced pilot was lost on a mission to Japan while flying Mr. Yellin’s Mustang, which he had named Dorrie R for his girlfriend, whom he had met while training in California. The unit dentist had grounded him that day to carry out the urgent removal of painful wisdom teeth.
Mr. Yellin was discharged from the military in December 1945 as a captain and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
And then his battles continued. “I was angry,” he said in the Library of Congress interview. “I could go to college. I had no desire to do that. I couldn’t hold a job. I had many, many jobs. I was depressed. Every symptom that they now diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder, I had.”
Mr. Yellin married Helene Schulman in 1949, and they began raising a family even while his emotional distress continued. It was not until he embraced Transcendental Meditation in 1975, at the suggestion of his wife, that he was able to alleviate his stress and find a productive life.
Jeffrey Yellin was born on Feb. 15, 1924, in Newark, N.J. After graduating from high school, he worked seven days a week in a steel mill to earn money for college. Then came Pearl Harbor.
In his later years, he helped fellow veterans, from World War II and the wars that followed, in their efforts to overcome combat-related trauma.
Mr. Yellin and his wife, who died in 2015, had four sons, David, Steven, Michael, and Robert, as well as grandchildren.
In 1983, when Mr. Yellin was a consultant to some banks in California, he was asked to visit Japan to speak about investments in real estate in the United States. He was reluctant to make the trip, having demonized the Japanese during the war. But his wife wanted to go, and when he got to Tokyo, he later said, he was impressed by the “well-dressed, well-mannered, beautiful-looking people.”
The Yellins sent their son Robert, a college senior at the time, to visit Japan in 1984. He loved the country and married a Japanese woman, Takako Yamakawa, four years later. The Yellins attended the wedding and made many subsequent visits to Japan to see the couple and their three children.
Takako’s father, Taro, had been a pilot in World War II. But Jerry Yellin and Taro Yamakawa found they could surmount the hatreds spawned by the war and, as Mr. Yellin once put it, “We became brothers, he and I.”
“I went from thinking a group of people were my enemy to finding my best friend,” Mr. Yellin told People magazine in 2017. “It’s a lesson to remember that, at the end of the day, we are all human and have so much love to give.”