The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II
By Don Brown with Capt. Jerry Yellin
Regenery History, 2017, 222 pages, hardcover
Remembering the final combat mission of WWII – and the boys who flew it
On Aug. 15, 1945, while the Allies waited to hear if Japan would surrender, 21-year-old Captain Jerry Yellin climbed into the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang and took off from Iwo Jima to attack targets in Tokyo. With him on what would be the final official combat mission of World War II was his trusted wingman Lieutenant Philip Schlamberg. For the 19-year-old pilot, it would be his final flight. Period.
“The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II” is an engrossing though short book about that fateful final mission and the events that led up to it. Through author Don Brown, the desperate narrative of what Capt. Yellin experienced and remembers is retold more than 70 years later.
The book chronicles the final days of the war as U.S. Marines fight to take Iwo Jima for use as a base to launch P-51s in supporting the waves of B-29s that were pummeling Japan. The tiny island was crucial to the Allied war effort since it was the perfect distance for the shorter-ranged fighter squadrons to take off from and protect the heavy bombers as they brought the war home to the enemy.
Brown uses his story-telling abilities well to describe an extremely challenging moment in American history. He is the author of 14 books, including “Treason,” a bestseller from his “Navy Justice” series. Yellin’s input is invaluable and can be seen in the firsthand detail about missions and operations. Today, the veteran is 93 and active as an advocate for veterans causes.
It is sometimes hard to realize what life was like in that era. We tend to romanticize World War II and view those involved as larger-than-life heroes. The truth is that those brave airmen, sailors, marines and soldiers were barely more than children. Most were frightened 18- and 19-year-olds just trying to do their duty and survive a brutal, costly war.
Brown and Yellin do a good job demonstrating this. They continually remind the reader of the young ages of these “warriors” who were given deadly assignments. In the forward, Yellin points out that many of the men in his squadron were still teenagers who didn’t know how to drive cars, yet had the responsibility of piloting the P-5l Mustang, “the world’s most sophisticated fighter plane” of that era.
“The Last Fighter Pilot” builds to a climax as the war in the Pacific comes to an end. The atomic bombs have been dropped and Japan teeters on the edge. Everyone hopes it is over but the killing cannot stop until the enemy has surrendered. Capt. Yellin and Lt. Schlamberg must fly one more mission. They are told a code word that will be broadcast if Japan capitulates. They then took off on that fateful final flight. Yellin landed back at Iwo Jima horrified to learn his friend was likely killed after the war had ended.
In reality, combat did not completely cease with Japan’s announced surrender. Pockets of resistance would hold out for several days and other Americans would lose their lives in the fight to end it all. Stephen Harding details those deaths in 2015’s “Last to Die: A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II,” which describes the costly attacks to mop up these holdouts.
Thanks to Jerry Yellin, Philip Schlamberg’s death was not in vain. He and Brown help to honor the wingman’s sacrifice with an exceptional story about teenagers coming of age while the world is at war. The only criticism of “The Last Fighter Pilot” is that it is not long enough. It left this reader wanting more, which is not a bad thing. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more.
David Kindy is a lifelong lover of history. He has read, studied and researched a wide range of historical topics. He has had history articles published in the Mayflower Descendant, the quarterly research journal of the Mayflower Society of Mayflower Descendants, and in the Old Colony Memorial, a twice-weekly newspaper in Plymouth, Mass. He is a former vice president of the Pilgrim Society, which operates Pilgrim Hall Museum, the oldest continuously operating public museum in the country. Prior to a career in advertising and PR, he was an award-winning feature editor and writer for community newspapers. Currently, he is writing a narrative history about a disaster that occurred in Plymouth during the American Revolution.