The last mission arrives in Fairfield

Jerry Yellin, left, and Susan Marella, right, share memories and page through photos and clippings of Marella’s father, Eugene O’Brien. Like Yellin, O’Brien was in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific in World War II.

Matt Milner – Ottumwa Courier

FAIRFIELD — When people think about the end of World War II, they tend to think about the grand events. VE Day. The atomic bombs. The surrender aboard the USS Missouri.

Few think of a young captain flying on Aug. 14, 1945. Jerry Yellin took off from Iwo Jima for an attack on Tokyo with wingman Phillip Schlamberg. By the time Yellin landed the war was over, and Schlamberg was the final American combat death.

“I gave him a thumbs up, he gave me a thumbs up,” Yellin said, and they turned for home. Schlamberg didn’t make it back.

The war ended that day, but it stayed with Yelin for 30 more years. Now 93, he was in Fairfield on Saturday to tell his story.

The years have been kind to Yellin physically. He has a piercing gaze and a firm handshake. He has the National D-Day Golf Tournament to play in later this month. The annual Army-Navy football game in December is on the schedule, too.

That’s now. The decades after the fighting ended were hard. Yellin had what would now be recognized as post traumatic stress disorder. Brought up on the injunction “Thou shalt not kill,” Yellin had done just that and been rewarded for doing so.

“Anybody that comes home and talks about what they did, killing people, you just can’t do that,” he said. “It was impossible for me to live with myself.”

To Yellin, killing people is evil. But that’s what war is. And the United States was faced with truly evil regimes that had to be stopped. But that doesn’t mean he believes anyone should revel in the necessity of killing people.

Yellin’s visit was less a speech or lecture than a reunion. He chatted with people, answered questions. He signed every copy of “The Last Fighter Pilot,” a book Dan Brown wrote with and about him, placed in front of him.

It was a place for memories for everyone, including those who came to hear Yellin. Susan Marella’s father, Eugene O’Brien, was in the Pacific theater at the same time. The parallels were striking. “I thought they could have been in the same squadron,” she said.

They weren’t. But Yellin remembers playing golf at the very same course Marella’s father played on. Together they paged through a book with clippings and photos of O’Brien. Yellin pulled up a photo of himself on his smartphone, one taken during the war.

Like Yellin, O’Brien didn’t talk about the war much in the decades after it ended. A large group of his friends from school died in a plane crash after enlistment. It was a flight that, except for fate, O’Brien himself might well have been on. The stories came late in O’Brien’s life.

“He was starting to talk about the loss of it, the loss of his friends from high school,” Marella said.

That makes sense to Yellin. It’s easy to learn about the major battles or the leading generals from articles and films taken during the war or shortly thereafter. Stories about the men waited as the veterans themselves worked out how to tell them.

Now, it’s time. It’s duty.

“I feel obligated that it’s told properly,” Yellin said.

Now, 72 years later, it’s time.



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.


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