30 October, 2016

Profile 123: "DORRIE R" as flown by Jerry Yellin, 78th FS

If you haven’t had sex for a long time…

(insert my shocked expression as this 92 year old man stated it so plainly)

…the next time, you’re all caught up.

Laugh, snicker or be offended all you want, there’s truth to Jerry’s words.  Ah, the stuff you learn from old people…

Okay.  Look above—it's "DORRIE R," the P-51 Mustang, circa May 1945, flown by Jerry Yellin of the 78th Fighter Squadron.  The Bushmasters, as the squadron was called, were based at Iwo Jima during WWII.  If you've heard Jerry's name before it's because he's become a darling of the internet world and for good reason—Jerry represents the “end” of WWII in many ways.

For example, he flew the war’s last combat mission.  His guns spewed the last bullets, he fired the last rockets and soberingly, he was the last one to lose a friend to war’s maw. Today?  Jerry is alive, well, strong, sharp…and working to make sure that his generation's legacy will survive.


Anyway, a few years ago,  a short video was posted where Jerry described his service. It's not gory, it's not dramatic, but the man's words are eloquent enough to have warranted viral status.   In fact, I lost count of how many times people emailed it to me with some sort of exclamation that "Everyone needs to watch this..."

The bottom line is that it kind of made the guy "famous."

If you haven't yet, please watch the clip below.  You won't be disappointed...

Ok, back to that opening quote. I won’t blame you if you’re wondering how it pertains to airplanes, fighter pilots or WWII.   But, his words were actually in response to a question I posed to him regarding whether he felt as if he were a “late bloomer” —you know, someone who comes into their-own sometime later in life.
But before I get into that, a little background is in order.

All-things-Iwo-Jima is a fascinating topic and highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand WWII.  The island was scene to especially fierce combat; a veteran Marine described the battle for island ownership thusly—as if by reflex, his shoulders drooped and  face fell into a grimace, eyes downcast.  Then he shook his head and whispered, “No…” 

There are times I wish I could download someone's memories and experience them for myself but that was not one of those times.

The Battle for Iwo Jima was declared “over” on 26 March (after nearly a month and a half of fighting) and just eleven days later, the island was amazingly ready to launch P-51s.  But,  the battle's impact was certainly not 'over' as, to this day, Jerry remembers the cleanup of the dead rather vividly.  Put that into perspective—even after two weeks, "the dead" were still being buried.

I've been told the movies “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Flags of Our Fathers and the particular episode of Steven Spielberg’s “The Pacific” are good portrayals; I’ll take their word for it.

Moving right along, interested in some period-film of some 78th FS P-51s?  Click below:

Anyway, back to the man— Jerry Yellin was a late-war fighter pilot.   His 19 combat missions were flown from Iwo Jima to Japan in the effort to destroy the Japanese war machine once and for all - either as escort for B-29 bombers or as part of a pack of fighters on search and destroy missions.

Though many WWII fighter pilots accumulated more combat missions (100+ wasn't uncommon), Jerry's were extraordinary for their length.  For reference, a three-four hour mission over the European Theatre of Operations was considered a big deal.  But over the Pacific, three hours could mean you weren’t even half-way there!  

Look below.  It’s a map of Iwo Jima in relation to Japan.  The missions from Iwo to Japan were 8 hour trips with the majority being over deep, uninhabited (save for creatures and submarines) ocean.   On paper, these missions were called "VLR" (short for Very Long Range).  But in practice, they were simply grueling.

Iwo Jima to Japan - a long ride.  Thanks to Google Maps for making
this incredible distance shorter.

How grueling?  Well,  flying a high-performance prop fighter is work. Granted, there's immense pleasure at horsing a beautifully trimmed machine around in the sky, letting g-forces gently pull and tug at the senses; air shows make it seem all the more fun.  On VLR missions (especially) the reality was different.

Seven, eight hours in a cockpit is much different than a marathon drive in the family car.  There's the constant need to hold the aircraft in formation amidst the sharp tremors and rolling swells of air currents.  Consider too that the airplane needs to be flown; fuel is burning off, changing flight characteristics, the gauges must be watched (continuously) and the constant drone of the engine vibrates the brain like a steady, dull hammering of what it is, noise.  At least there's no conversation as radio-silence must be maintained.  

An "upper" container circa mid-20th Century.  It was sent to me by a reader who's a "Shrink" with
one of the world's most renown hospital systems.  He confirmed that soldiers were doped.
Source:  Photo unknown.  The doctor who sent this to me?  He prefers to remain anonymous.
To stave off the body's response to go to sleep, Benzadrine pills (uppers) were given to the pilot to keep them alert.  Of course, once the coast of Japan is sighted, the body would react with a blast of adrenaline...after the fight, there was the return home.

Again, Jerry flew these VLR missions not once but 19 times.

So, one more time—have a look at my art at the top of the post.  Notice the title, "The Last Warriors.”    If you click on the graphic, you'll see a faint image of a P-51 silhouette just offset from the detailed rendering.   Holding the actual print to the light—just so—the faint image will glimmer.  But twist the page just-so and it seems to disappear.*

The real DORRIE R was destroyed on June 1, 1945.   Jerry wasn't flying it at the time though.  Instead, Jerry was temporarily grounded due to problems with his wisdom teeth.  Dental pain is bad enough but add the fluctuating pressures of altitude and the pain ratchet’s-up to an unbearable level.  So, another pilot took-off in Jerry’s place, in Jerry's plane.

Jerry (right) shows Lt. Denny Mathis the fine points of formation-flying.  Specifically, Jerry is showing Denny how to lead a 2-man group (called an Element) within a 4-man Flight.  I was particularly grateful for this picture as it helped me draw
the "DORRIE R" nose art (painted on both sides of Jerry's P-51).
In one of those strange-but-true moments, 100 P-51s (in close formation) from that June 1 mission entered a storm line.  In the ensuing turbulence and dark-swirled chaos, 27 Mustangs  collided mid-air.  2 pilots were able to bail-out but 25 were killed; one of those being the pilot of the DORRIE R.  Jerry suffered a mouth of pain but it ended up preserving his life.   Thus, this rendering of his airplane represents the capricious whim of fate that we all face in life.

The silhouette also represents that last mission of 14 August, 1945.  Jerry—and as many as 143 additional P-51s**—were on a VLR mission to strafe a series of fighter bases near Tokyo.   After conquering the demon of combat one more time, Jerry and the rest crossed the Japanese coast to return home.  Entering another cloud bank, the Force went into the black...

...and emerged missing one man, Phil Schlamberg.

Phil was Jerry's wingman.  And friend.

This is Phil, age 19, circa 1944.  Jerry sent me the picture; it's of an enlarged version that Jerry carried in a parade to memorialize Phil.
Courtesy:  Jerry Yellin 
What happened?  No one knows.  Maybe a Japanese anti-aircraft shell pierced his airplane and the P-51 slowly bled its fluids to death.  Maybe Phil had a stroke.  Maybe an enemy fighter snuck in.  Maybe...the demon got him.

After a while, the cause is immaterial.  Jerry was crushed and Phil became the last Air Force combat casualty in WWII; by the time the squadron returned to their base at Iwo Jima, the war was declared over.

(deep breath).

Ok - fast forward to a few days ago and Jerry and I were having a conversation and that lead to the comment that opened this blog post.  Again, the context was the delayed satisfaction of being a "late bloomer."

After the war, Jerry did what so many people do who endure hardship, he stuffed it aside and moved on.  But stuffing a traumatic past never works.  Trauma is caustic and eventually eats through whatever mental containment a person can conjure.  In Jerry's case, though happily married, he skipped through various careers and opportunity, never really settling until the day when his son announced that he'd be marrying a Japanese woman.  The daughter of a Japanese fighter pilot, in fact!

On the 1988 trip (to Japan) to meet his future daughter-in-law, 'something snapped' (as it always seems to do) and the demon came back to taunt and condemn.  This time, Jerry, now a bit older and a bit wiser, fought back—not with guns or pills—but with the idea that he'd either have to adapt to the future or forever live in a haunted past.

You gotta read Jerry's book.  Click here.   But suffice it to state, it has a happy ending. Through hard work and medicating his mind with a meditative practice called "Transcendental Meditation," (TM).  Jerry was able to put the demon of war to death.  Yet, this beast, though gone, left a number of reminders.  One of them was particularly difficult to hear as it represents just how far-reaching war's impact really is.

That December of 1945, three or so months after WWII ended, Jerry went to visit Phil's parents and return what remained of their son—a handful of uniform insignia and the condolences of a buddy.  The meeting ended before it began.  Phil's mother, in the desperation of grief, lashed at Jerry with the words, "It should have been you that died on that mission!"

I asked Jerry about how he reacted and he said that he stood, alone Phil's porch for an hour in utter shock...

(insert kick to gut)

"I was probably 51 (years of age) before I began to get any satisfaction out of things.  (And) put things back in order.  I'd been living with this thing called PTSD all my life.  TM helped me do that."

That was a surprising quote for me.  People are supposed to get their 'issues' figured out before then, right?  "51?!  That's a long time to wait to get your life figured out!"

"Yeah. It is."

"But I look at what you've done, (i.e. book, working with veteran's support charities, returning to Iwo Jima to pay respects to both sides, etc.) and you've certainly come into your own late in life..."

"Yes.  It's my Zone.  I am in the zone."

Jerry Yellin, me and Claude Hone at the Sioux Falls Airshow.  Jerry had just flown in after taking
part in a pretty cool fly-by at the Pensacola Beach Airshow led by buddy Roy Kinsey
Click here. 

'What did your wife think?"  (Helene passed away last year.  They were married 65 years).

"She was proud of me.  She liked my message."

"And what's your message?"

"You know, any man, regardless of race, nationality, culture, can get any woman of any race, nationality and culture pregnant.  What does that tell you?"

(I laughed)  "You tell me, Jerry."

"We, as human beings are the same.  If all of our differences can still be put together to reproduce, we're fundamentally the same.  Look.  We have the ability to destroy the earth with war.   But for all of our differences, we can create from each other too.  I want people to think about that.  I want people to look at life the way Nature intended.  We should be caretakers.  Not warriors."


So, riffing on Jerry's opening quote, maybe one day, someone will say, “You know, we haven’t had peace on this earth for a long time,” and then suddenly, we’ll have peace.  And then, in Jerry’s words, we’ll be all caught up.

And, we’ll all be late-bloomers, too.

Update 12-30-17.  A very limited number of prints (signed by Jerry) remain.  Please contact me for availability and pricing.  Click here.

*It’s a cool little effect I can use because of the Xerox technology that the printing company uses to reproduce my artwork.

Look below:

Hot off the press; my drawing of Jerry's airplane represents Phil Schlamberg, too!
Thanks, Xerox!

**Three Fighter Groups were on this mission.  Each Group contained 48 aircraft.  Of course, there may have been aborts but the number should be considered generally accurate.