Flying the P-51

A fighter pilot’s story

Created date

January 4th, 2018
A P-51D fighter plane much like the one that Yellin had flown during the war.

There is no shortage of war memoirs in today’s publishing industry. From Afghanistan and Iraq back to Vietnam and Korea, the new volumes of stories about our fighting men and women are piling up quickly.

When it comes to the Second World War, however, publishers are adding far fewer to the pile, and understandably so. As of 2016, just 620,000 of the original 16 million American World War II veterans were still with us.

That population shrinks by 372 every day.

The number of surviving World War II pilots who flew the legendary P-51 fighter plane is even smaller, which is why Jerry Yellin’s memoir is so important. 

In The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II (Regnery History, 2017), Yellin, along with bestselling author Don Brown, tells the incredible wartime tale of a young pilot’s combat experiences in the skies over the Japanese-held islands of the Pacific Theater.

At the controls

In March 1945, Yellin was a spry, confident 20-year-old captain in the Seventy-Eighth Fighter Squadron of the Fifteenth Fighter Group—an arm of the Twentieth United States Army Air Force.

When he first touched down in his P-51D on the island of Iwo Jima, Japanese forces were stubbornly holding out in fortified tunnels and caves. The pilots in his unit were there to provide close air support to the American infantrymen in hopes of dislodging the enemy from his subterranean position. 

At least, this was how his combat experience started off. 

It wasn’t long before Yellin was flying bombing and strafing runs over Japan, itself. Finally, on the morning of August 15, 1945, he flew the last combat mission of the entire war.

It had been nine days since U.S. forces unleashed the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Still, the Japanese held out.

So Yellin, accompanied by his friend and wingman Philip Schlamberg (actress Scarlett Johansson’s great uncle), set out to bomb Tokyo. Schlamberg didn’t make it home; and by the time Yellin returned to his base at Iwo Jima, the war was over.

Perhaps most amazing about his memoir is its clarity. Seventy-two years after the fact, Yellin recalls his war story like it was yesterday.

“Combat isn’t something that you ever forget,” he says. “It stays with you for the rest of your life.”

His memories of flying the venerable P-51 have also stayed with him. Yellin’s recollection puts his reader behind the controls of arguably the finest fighter plane of the Second World War.

Known as the Mustang

Introduced in 1940, the Mustang, as it was commonly known, was a staple fighter plane in both the European and Pacific theaters, and with good reason. When Yellin reached Iwo Jima in 1945, the aircraft was in its fourth variation.

Powered by a supercharged Packard V-1650-7 engine, the Mustang was capable of speeds well over 400 miles per hour. Armed with six .50-caliber Browning machine guns, this fighter was fast, agile, and had excellent range, making it superior to just about anything else in the skies at the time.

“That plane was an absolute dream to fly,” recalls Yellin. “That’s all you had to do was think about turning, and the aircraft would do it—it was like an extension of your body.”

Yellin describes his war days with a mixture of pride and sadness.

“On the one hand, I wanted to tell my story—what it was like to fly this great airplane and the kind of mettle a guy had to have in order to do it,” he says. “But at the same time, this isn’t just my story; it’s about the great men that I flew with—the ones who didn’t make it home.”

To be sure, his memoir does all of this and more. 

Readers will undoubtedly gain a true sense of what it was like to fight in the skies of World War II. More importantly, though, they’ll understand precisely why men like Jerry Yellin are part of the Greatest Generation.

They took risks and served their country with honor. Thankfully, some of them are still here to tell us about it.