I note that Captain Jerry Yellin died last month.
The last combat mission of World War II began Aug. 15, 1945, when fighter pilot Jerry Yellin and his wingman, 19-year-old Philip Schlamberg, took off from Iwo Jima to attack airfields near Nagoya, Japan.
The war seemed all but over. Germany had surrendered in May, and much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in ruins, decimated by atomic bombs dropped the previous week. If Yellin heard a code word — "Utah" — Japan's rumored surrender had occurred, and he was to cancel his mission and return to Iwo Jima, a rocky island that he had helped secure months earlier and that offered a base for American bombers headed north to Japan.
Later that day, on what was still Aug. 14 in the United States, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender. For some reason, however, Yellin and Schlamberg never got the message.
Taking on antiaircraft fire in their P-51 Mustangs, they strafed their targets and headed home, passing through a thick bank of clouds. Schlamberg, who had previously admitted a sense of foreboding to Yellin, saying, "If we go on this mission, I'm not coming back," never emerged from the haze.
Disappearing from Yellin's wing, he was presumed dead and considered one of the last Americans to be killed in combat during World War II.
Yellin, who landed on Iwo Jima to discover that the war had ended three hours earlier, and who later became an outspoken advocate of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, died Dec. 21 at his son Steven Yellin's home in Orlando, Florida. He was 93 and had lung cancer, his son said.
For Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where "there wasn't a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun."
"The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away," he told the Washington Times in August.
There's more at the link.
I encountered Captain Yellin several years ago, in the pages of a remarkable book describing his reconciliation with Japan and its people through a marriage between two families.
It's the story of how his son fell in love with a Japanese woman, and how Capt. Yellin had to come to terms with that, given his wartime attitudes towards them. A meeting with a Japanese war veteran fighter pilot opened up new vistas on their shared humanity. I won't spoil the book by telling you more, but it's worth a read.
Capt. Yellin most recently (just a few months ago) published an account of his war experiences.
May he rest in peace.
EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to commenter Sam L. below, I was led to this lengthy discussion of Capt. Yellin's wartime service, and of his final mission. That blog also provided a link to this video clip of Capt. Yellin. Thanks, Sam!