featured in PEOPLE – WWII Fighter Pilot Finds ‘Family’ with Japanese Kamikaze Pilot After Their Kids Fall in Love: ‘We Are All Human’

 

As a member of the 78th fighter squadron during World War II, former Army Air Corps Captain Jerry Yellin flew combat missions in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima — one of the deadliest battles in the war. He shot down airplanes and attacked people on the ground.

“Killing was not something I was raised to do, but we had a ferocious enemy trying to destroy us,” Yellin, 93, tells PEOPLE. “Never once did I think of the people on the ground as people. They were Japanese — they attacked Pearl Harbor, they did atrocious things to prisoners of war

“They weren’t human beings to us.”

So “never in a million years” did Yellin expect to love a Japanese kamikaze pilot like a brother — or welcome him into his family.

Almost 53 after the war ended, Yellin’s hatred turned to love when his son, Robert Yellin, married a Japanese woman — the daughter of a WWII kamikaze pilot

In Yellin’s new book The Last Fighter Pilot, co-author Don Brown describes the veteran’s emotional WWII experience and his journey to love his new Japanese family.

“Jerry would learn to love, respect, and commune with the very people that he had once, with all of his might, tried to kill, and who had taken the lives of the fellow airmen closest to him,” Brown writes in the epilogue.

Yellin — a flying enthusiast from Hillside, New Jersey — enlisted on his 18th birthday in February of 1942. Three years later, he flew the final WWII combat mission in Japan on an attack on airfields near Tokyo. Yellin’s wingman and good friend, Phillip Schlamberg of New York, was the last man killed in a combat mission.

“History sometimes serves fascinating slices of irony,” Yellin writes in the book. “With the news emerging in 1945 of the Nazi atrocities against Jews half a world away, how ironic that the war’s final mission would be flown by a couple of Jewish pilots from New York and New Jersey, and that the final combat life in the defense of freedom would be laid down by a teenage Jewish fighter pilot who had not yet learned to even drive a car.”

After years spent suffering from PTSD, Yellin returned to Japan with his wife, Helene, in 1983 for the first time since the war.

“I was blown away,” he says. “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.”

Later that year, the couple treated their youngest son, Robert, to a trip to Japan. He loved it so much, that he returned in 1984 as an English teacher. During his stay he met and fell in love with his future wife.

Yellin visited Japan in 1987 to meet Robert’s then-fiancée Takako Yamakawa, the daughter of Taro and Hatsue Yamakawa. 

“But her parents wouldn’t meet me,” recalls Yellin. “Taro was a kamikaze pilot and hated Americans as much as I had hated the Japanese.”

It took seven months for Taro to agree to meet Robert. During their first interaction, he asked Yellin’s son five questions.

“He asked what I flew in the war,” says Yellin. “When he found out I flew a P-51, he said that anyone who flew that was a brave man— and that he would be proud to have the blood of that man flow in his grandchildren.”

At Robert and Takako’s 1988 nuptials, the two men agreed to finally meet.

“A few days after the wedding, we went with a translator to a hot bath and spoke about our wartime experiences, spiritual beliefs and education,” says Yellin. “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.”

The Yellins returned to Japan every year to visit their son and his in-laws — even after Robert and Takako divorced.

“Sadly, Taro passed away three years ago,” says Yellin. “I miss him every day.”

Their friendship now lives on through the three grandchildren they share.

“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.”

WWII Fighter Pilot Finds ‘Family’ with Japanese Kamikaze Pilot After Their Kids Fall in Love: ‘We Are All Human’

 

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Reagan Presidential Library and Museum – Author Don Brown & Jerry Yellin Lecture & Book Signing

Lecture and Book signing with Author Don Brown and Jerry Yellin

Please join us for a lecture and book signing with Don Brown and Jerry Yellin on their book, The Last Fighter Pilot (Publish Date: July 31, 2017). This event is free to attend, however books must be purchased in the Reagan Library Museum Store to receive signature. Books may be pre-purchased during the reservation process.

The Last Fighter Pilot is the account of Captain Jerry Yellin, who flew the last combat mission of WWII on the morning of August 15th out of Iwo Jima. Captain Yellin is a sharp, engaging, 93-year-old veteran whose story is brought to life by New York Times bestselling author Don Brown (Treason).

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Remembering Taro Yamakawa

I awakened quite early after a restless night thinking about today’s activities. It isn’t every day that one is scheduled to visit a family cemetery in a foreign country to pay your respects to a former enemy who became a dear friend and a grandfather to my son Robert’s children, Kentaro, Simon and Sara.

Kaz Ohno, an English speaking journalist employed by Fuji TV picked me up at 9, Louisa Merino and Riley Morton arrived almost at the same time. Louisa is a documentary maker from Fairfield, Iowa where I live.  Riley is  a photographer  from Seattle who will work his camera magic at the planned ceremony.
We loaded their film equipment into the trunk of Kaz’s rental car and headed towards a small Temple in Tokyo where members of the of the Yamakawa family have been buried for generations. Taro had passed away in 2012 at the age of 87. Sara would meet us there at 9:45.
The Temple was in a neighborhood of small, two and three story homes and apartments on a very narrow road. Two cars could not pass each other without one stopping and juggling for space. Kaz struggled backing into the allotted parking space off of the street after the three of us got out of the car.
We were the first to arrive. I walked quietly into the open door of a waiting room and felt the silence of the interior. It always amazes me that such an orderly feeling can exist in such a bustling area of active people.
Mr. Ishida of Fuji TV and his crew arrived on schedule. Sara was on time too. The two of us walked ahead of the TV people, Sara carried a large wooden bucket of water and a long handled wooden ladle. I held a metal container of wrapped stems of burning incense. We walked the narrow path through the shrines to the rear of the Temple grounds and stopped and stood in front of Taro’s family burial place.
Sara and I stood silently facing the Japanese inscription. She was handed a bouquet of flowers and she placed them in a container, bowed slightly, placed her hands together and remained still. I followed her every gesture. After a few moments of silence she pulled a ladle full of water out of the bucket and slowly spilled the water onto the marble levels of the shrine. She nodded to me and I repeated what she had done. Then we each placed one the burning incense rolls into the slots on the base of the grave marker. We remained silent and prayer like for several minutes. Tears slowly welled in her eyes. I too felt the love of her grandfather and my friend, Taro Yamakawa.

In prayer & remembrance.

The Gift of Friendship with Doctor Alwahdani

I could not stop thinking about the feelings I had about this man I had just left. He was smart, upfront, professional and seemed to be a regular guy. I liked him very much. It struck me that he might like to have a memento of the war I served in for nearly four years. When I arrived home I took the model of my P-51 off of my desk.  It was an exact, scale model duplicate of the plane I flew, with the name on the nose and the numbers on the tail and the side. I placed it in a padded box along with a copy of the Air Force magazine that had an article in it about me and mailed it to him at his office. Then I emailed him.

Abdullah, what a great way to have a friendship begin, an office visit! Here is a picture of a model of my airplane, more pics in another email. Looking forward to more time together professionally and socially, maybe able to get you a ride in a Stearman in Galesburg in September and hope you can find time to go to Oshkosh with me in late July. All the best

Jerry

This is his reply:

Jerry, 

I can’t describe my emotions after meeting you. Mixture of excitement admiration and pride. I’m very fortunate to be talking to one of the heroes I always read about. I’m very looking forward for our next meeting. Soon I hope. I’m very thankful for whoever worked for our paths to cross. You have touched my heart today. 

 Abdullah 

 

I walked into his crowded office on February 9. Before I could get to the reception desk the door to the examining rooms opened and Abdullah pointed his finger at me and motioned for me to follow him into his office. On his desk was the Dorrie R, my plane.

“Wait for me here, Jerry, I have a few patients to see first.”

 

I smiled with pride that my plane was in his private office. When he finally walked back into his office he asked me how I was feeling and then sat down and examined my hands.

“I don’t like what I see, Jerry. Have to change the medication, make it stronger. You OK with that?”

“Of course, you are my Doc, I will do whatever it is you tell me to do.”

Then he stood up and stood close to me and pointed to the Dorrie R and said very softly,

“I will cherish this as long as I live. I had a present for you too but did not mail it,” as he handed me a black and white scarf. “Didn’t know if you would like it or even know what it is.”

“Thank you Abdullah, how do I wear it?”

He leaned over me, put the scarf around my neck, stood tall and pulled a set of beads out of his pocket. “My father died when he was 72, these were his beads. I want you to have them,” and handed them to me.

“These are an heirloom, Abdullah. I can’t accept them. They are for your children and their children,” as I held them out to him.

“No Jerry, they are for you! I want you to have them!”

We hugged, tightly as I left the office

I looked up Muslim prayer beads on Google when I got home. I knew there were 33 beads as I had counted them when I sat in my car. But I did not know the significance of the number until I read the explanation.

Now I know, and the beads reside comfortably in my pocket from morning to night, every day. A reminder of the kindness that resides in my new friend Abdullah, as close to me as a person can get to another human being, as a human being throughout a lifetime.

I sent him this email yesterday, his reply came hours later:

Abdullah, I have a very strong desire to begin writing the story of The Beads. In order to do so I have to ask for your permission. Should you agree it would mean a lot of conversation between us and a lot of research by me. I have told the short version many times and each time the reaction is the same, tears and conversation about healing and people. Your input, your feelings and knowledge of your background and father is paramount should you want this to go forward. I tried texting you, it didn’t go through and it is too early to call.

Thanks my friend.

Jerry

That will be awesome.

 

I will see Abdullah on Friday, February 26. We will only have a few minutes of time for personal conversation as he is very busy during the day. But I will pursue this friendship beyond our borders. Hopefully this will become a story for others to read and be inspired to reach out in love and peace to strangers who do not believe what they believe, but learn to see all humans as they are meant to be seen, as human beings like themselves.

 

Jerry Beads

 

Doctor Alwahdani

We met by chance on January, 29, 201​5​.

I am a  91 year Jewish/American World War Two fighter pilot who was referred to a Cardiologist in Burlington, Iowa, 45 miles East of Fairfield​,​ by my local physician. No doctor’s name was given to me, just a building name and a suite number, 109.
“Be there at 1:45 I was told.”

The offices were in the Great River Hospital. I arrived on time, found the suite in the Eastman Building and walked to the reception desk.
“Who will I be seeing? I asked the receptionist.

“Doctor Alwahdani,” she replied.

“Where is he from?

“Palestine.” She replied respectfully.

Interesting, I thought as I hung my coat on the hook and took a seat. Minutes later the door to the examination area opened and a swarthy, husky, unshaven, dark skinned man wearing scrubs and holding a file spoke to those of us in the waiting room, “Mr. Yellin, please.”

“Are you the doctor,” ‘I asked.
He nodded yes as we entered an examining room and sat opposite each other.

“How may I help you,” he asked

“What is your first name, Doctor?” I asked

“Abdullah.”

“May I call you Abdullah?”

“Of course,” he replied.

I then explained that my fingers were turning color in the cold and tingled, He took my hand gently, pressed on my pulse and leaned over my hand looking intently at my fingers.

“I am a Jewish man who lived in Israel, “I said quietly as he placed his hand on my pulse and pushed one finger down hard, “I have personally witnessed the animosity between the Arabs and the Jews.”

He looked up and spoke firmly,  he looked me in the eye and replied​,
​”You have no idea who we are,”

as he continued to examine my fingers. When he finished the examination he told me that there was a problem with circulation from my elbow to my fingertips, demonstrated the test he had been doing and said he would give me a prescription that will help the problem. Hesitating for a minute he then asked, “Do you know what my hobby is?”

“How would I know? I replied.

“World War Two is my hobby,” he said, emphatically. “And you are the first veteran of that war that I have met.”

“How did you know I was a veteran?”

“I knew your age so I looked you up on Google.”

We spoke for a few minutes as he escorted me to the door and told me to come back in two weeks.

“I am leaving on February 11 on a trip,” I said.

“Come back on the 9th.”

Doves-of-Peace-to-strike