Son's marriage helped WWII pilot turn hatred of enemy into love of family
PEARL HARBOR (HawaiiNewsNow) - Captain Jerry Yellin is one of the most renowned pilots of World War Two.
He was among the first American pilots to land on Iwo Jima during the battle over the tiny Pacific island. Tomorrow, Captain Yellin will return to Iwo Jima for the 72nd commemoration of that battle, along with representatives from both the United States and Japan.
Yellin says the highlight of his life was fighting for his country during a time of war. World War II helped shape him, but in later years, Yellin says, it proved to be a lesson in forgiveness.
"It's the only battle that was fought, ever, where the two countries, the two combatants, get together for a reunion of honor," Yellin said. "And it's an honor to be a part of that."
In March of 1945, in his P-51 Mustang, Yellin was among the first to land on Iwo Jima after Marines had captured enough ground to build an airstrip. Fighting was still intense.
"For 30 days, from March 7th to April 7th, we strafed for the Marines as they took the island," Yellin said.
The war's impact was felt on both sides.
"When he slipped back the canopy, this overwhelming odor that he never smelled before, which was sickening but sweet," said Daniel Martinez, Chief Historian at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. "He looked out of the cockpit and saw stacks of Japanese that were bulldozed into mass trenches."
"There were 21, 27, 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun," Yellin added. "The sights, sounds, and the smells never go away."
This weekend on Iwo Jima, those horrors of war -- for both countries -- will be remembered.
"Its a very emotional experience. We were 90,000, fighting on eight square miles of land," Yellin said.
Decades later, in 1988, Yellin's life came full circle when his youngest son married the daughter of a Japanese Kamikaze. Yellin says the experience took him from hatred of enemy; he now has three part-Japanese grandchildren.
"I've learned more from my children from what life is about than they could've ever learned about me," Yellin says.
Now 93 years old, Yellin has fond memories of Hawaii -- where he made his first stop back in October 1943 -- before heading off to combat in the Pacific.
"When I landed in October, in Hawaii, there were 3 buildings on Waikiki Beach, the Outrigger Canoe Club, the Moana Hotel, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. So a lot has changed," said Yellin. "We were flying off of the beach in Haleiwa, P-40s. There were metal strips on the beach. And then we went to Stanley Field, which was two holes of a golf course at Schofield."
And when he looks back at his life, Yellin, respectfully, makes one correction.
"Tom Brokaw called me a part of the 'Greatest Generation,' and I don't believe that," he said. "I was 17 on Pearl Harbor Day and 18 in February, and I didn't know anything."
Yellin flew the first and last combat missions over Japan in World War II. Last week, he spent several days in Hawaii sharing his story with others at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, speaking with students at from Punahou and Kamehameha about the experience.
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