My old friend, the late Jerry Yellin
I met Jerry in the early 2000s through the Military Writers Society. We spoke by phone several times as he was writing “Of War and Weddings.” He was a tough, charming, cantankerous WW2 veteran with a tender heart. He was especially dear to me for his time on Iwo Jima where my dad served. Jerry was a pilot who flew support…my dad a young Marine who fought on the ground all 36 days. The horrors they experienced there were different but equally traumatic. My dad passed away early…at the age of 50. Jerry lasted much longer and I grew fond of him…and read his books with relish…and with his permission, wrote about him several times.
There is one story that I haven’t written about though. Until now. An elderly Marine…named Tom McGraham…also a veteran of Iwo Jima…found me at the 65th Reunion of Iwo Jima veterans at Quantico. By this time, there were more family members like me in attendance than actual survivors of the Battle. At the banquet, Tom sat beside my husband and showed him a ragged manuscript. No one would publish it for him. Now my husband thinks I give my heart and time too easily. He usually gives me that “look” when I agree to do a book that maybe isn’t ready for primetime. But something about Tom won Johnny’s heart and he pled Tom’s case to me. How could I refuse?
Fast forward to the MWSA conference in Pittsburgh in 2010. Tom’s book, “The Road to Iwo Jima“ won a minor award. Since I last saw him, he’d lost a leg…the one that took a bullet on Iwo almost 70 years before…and was much more fragile. His was definitely in decline…but he was thrilled to be recognized. He struggled to make his way to the microphone and instead of just saying,’ thank you,’ he began a long circuitous tale that was so long folks got antsy. He had trouble finding the words…but he was remembering his fellow combatants who died and how it was when he was shot. It took him so long to get there, that people who’d already received their awards got bored and started talking to each other. They got so loud, it made it hard for the rest of us to hear Tom’s raspy voice
However, when Tom got to the end of his tale, one very loud voice in the audience said, “That’s the best story I ever heard.” And with that, another frail Iwo vet…Jerry Yellin…stood up and started clapping. People startled and looked around. Overjoyed by Jerry’s gesture toward Tom, I started clapping too. And then everyone at Jerry’s table stood up. Then the next table and the next. Tom was thrilled with his standing ovation.
I never saw Tom again. We lost him a little while after that. And Jerry Yellin officially became my hero for giving Tom his moment. I tried to tell him that once, but Jerry just said, “Tom told a hell of a story.” Indeed he had.
Years later, Jerry called me a day or so before he died. We didn’t say goodbye in so many words…but I knew and cried for him the way I cried for my dad and for Tom McGraham and the many other vets I’ve known and worked with and lost over the years. They were all special. Especially, Jerry Yellin.
“I am pleased to announce that the documentary about Captain Jerry Yellin, Jerry's Last Mission, has been accepted to the 2023 GI Film Festival in San Diego. The festival is from May 15-20 at the Museum of Photographic Arts. This multi-day event is dedicated to presenting films and events for, by, and about the military and veterans. Stay tuned for more information.” From Jerry’s Facebook page.