Former Fairfield resident and World War II fighter pilot Jerry Yellin was laid to rest with full military honors Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Yellin flew the last combat mission of World War II, and achieved notoriety late in life for his advocacy of peace and reconciliation, and for raising awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yellin died Dec. 21, 2017, at age 93. He was buried along with his wife of 65 years, Helene, who died in 2015.
“My father wanted to be buried with his fellow warriors,” said his son, Steven, a Fairfield resident, who petitioned to have Jerry and Helene’s remains buried at Arlington National Cemetery. “It was an incredible ceremony, very dignified and moving.”
To be buried with full military honors meant that Jerry’s remains were carried to the cemetery on a horse-drawn caisson, a wagon used to transport ammunition in earlier eras but which today is reserved for funeral processions.
“An American flag is draped over the caisson, and after the ceremony, four Marines take the flag off, and in perfect unison, fold it and give it to us,” Steven said.
Steven also arranged for the U.S. Air Force to perform a four-jet flyover, which he said was no easy feat. The A-10 jets came from the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. They performed the “missing man” formation typically used to honor a decorated pilot or political leader, whereby one of the jets peels off from the group to signal the dignitary’s passing.
“Sixteen squadrons in the Air Force wanted to do the flyover,” Steven said. “All Air Force pilots look up to my father as a hero.”
Steven estimated that 125-150 people attended the ceremony. Afterward, one of Jerry’s friends sponsored a dinner at a local hotel. People took turns speaking about how Jerry touched their lives.
“I lived with my father for the past three years in Orlando,” Steven said. “Living with Jerry Yellin was an extraordinary experience because he was so engaging, even at such an advanced age. His intellect was so sharp. For 2.5 years, he traveled two to four times per month everywhere in the country.”
Jim and Ginger Belilove were among a handful of Fairfield residents who traveled to Arlington to honor their late friend.
“Jerry really made his mark on the world,” Ginger said. “For the last five years of his life, he was extremely busy speaking on peace and reconciliation, and [about] Transcendental Meditation alleviating post-traumatic stress for servicemen.”
Steven said his father suffered from a severe case of PTSD. Of Jerry’s 32-member squadron, exactly half survived. Why did he live when so many others died? This question gnawed at him for years. Steven recalls his father telling him that, when he was flying missions over Iwo Jima, all he could think about was going back home. But when the war ended and he came home, all he could think of was returning to Iwo Jima.
In 1975, Helene and Jerry began practicing Transcendental Meditation. Jerry credited the technique with allowing him to live into his 90s.
Since Arlington National Cemetery is the most well-known and coveted burial ground, being awarded a plot is a prestigious honor. In the biography of his father that he submitted to the cemetery authorities, Steven wrote about Jerry’s combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
Jerry enlisted in the military two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He graduated from his fighter pilot school in August 1943, and spent the remainder of the war flying combat missions with the 78th Fighter Squadron. Steven said his father strafed the island of Iwo Jima to assist the Marines in taking it in March 1945. Jerry participated in the first land-based fighter mission over Japan on April 7, 1945, and led the final mission of the war on Aug. 14, 1945. For his efforts during the war, Yellin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with an oak leaf cluster and the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters.
The Beliloves came to know Jerry when he stepped inside their business 10 years ago. The Beliloves run Creative Edge Master Shop, and Jerry was there because he needed a plaque. When Jim asked him what it was for, Jerry told him it was destined for Japan, to commemorate an incident that occurred during the war.
According to Jerry Yellin’s official website, two American B-29s crashed mid-air during a bombing mission over Japan in June 1945. A local soybean farmer came upon the wreckage, and gave a proper burial to the 23 Americans who died. The farmer was given a prison sentence for giving counsel to the enemy, but after his release, he commissioned the construction of a shrine as a memorial to peace. He raised money from the neighboring city of Shizuoka, which the Americans had been bombing. Even after this farmer died, others have kept alive the tradition of honoring deceased soldiers from both sides at this peace memorial atop Mount Shizuhata.
When Jim heard this story, he insisted on giving Jerry the plaque for free. Jerry accepted, on the condition that the Beliloves attend the ceremony in Japan with him. They agreed, and it became the first of many trips the Beliloves took with Jerry and his family.
Reconciling with Japan
Steven said his father “hated the Japanese” in the years immediately after the war, but his attitude changed while on a business trip to the country in 1982. Somehow, on the trip he felt a close kinship with Japanese people and their culture. That kinship would grow in the coming years thanks to his son Robert.
Robert is the youngest of the four boys (Steven, Michael and David). He visited Japan for a few weeks during college, and liked it so much he returned to the country later to work in an English school. He fell in love with a young Japanese woman named Takako, but he ran into a problem with her family.
Takako’s father refused even to meet Robert for the first seven months. Finally, the family met Robert for dinner at a restaurant. Takako’s three older brothers grilled him with questions, asking him about his background and his parents. They wanted to hear about his father.
“Uh oh,” Robert remembers thinking. “I told them that my father was in World War II, and that he fought at Iwo Jima.”
Upon hearing this, Takako’s father perked up. He wanted to know more. Robert explained that Jerry was a P-51 pilot.
“Once he learned that, the father was immediately in favor of the marriage,” Robert said. “He was a couple of years younger than Jerry, and was training to become a pilot, too. He said there are no enemies in the skies.”
The father said that anyone who flies a P-51 is brave, and that person’s lineage can be welcomed into the house. Robert breathed a sigh of relief.
Jerry and Takako’s dad, Mr. Yamakawa, met later on, and discovered they had much in common, becoming lifelong friends. The bonds of that friendship grew stronger with the birth of Robert and Takako’s three children: Kentaro, Simon and Sara. The decorated American fighter pilot who once hated the Japanese now had three Japanese-American grandkids.
The legacy of Jerry Yellin has been kept alive through his books, such as his autobiography “Of War and Weddings,” the tale of the final combat mission over Japan in “The Last Fighter Pilot,” his struggles with PTSD in “The Resilient Warrior,” and others. His official website is captainjerryyellin.com.
A documentary about Jerry’s life titled “The Last Man Standing” is in production. The director, Louisa Merino, met Jerry in Fairfield, and after hearing his stories, knew they must be made into a film. Steven said the documentary should be finished in the next six months, and that it will be shown at film festivals and eventually, he hopes, online.