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World War II: Jerry Yellin

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Time Frame: 1942

An Iowa fighter pilot in World War II who overcame his hatred of the Japanese people years after the war when his son married a Japanese woman is featured. This program aired in 2003.
Living in Iowa
IPTV, 2007

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Nearly 60 years have passed since the end of World War II, and now each month thousands of veterans of that war pass away and take with them the dramatic accounts of their wartime experiences. Jerry Yellin of Fairfield, Iowa, made sure that didn't happen to his story. It's one with a surprise ending that has sent him on a mission armed with the powerful message that it is powerful to love your enemy. Be advised that some of the images in this feature are graphic depictions of war. Who is the Jerry Yellin who in 1944 went off to Iwo Jima?

Jerry: He was a young man who was very much an American. In 1941 the dislike that I had for the Japanese turned to deep anger, as everyone in the United States became angry. And I couldn't wait to get in to fight for my country.

Morgan: Jerry lives with images that will forever haunt him.

Jerry: The Japanese bodies and the smell and the sight and the maggots, the American marine mortuary, seeing my friends as I see them as young men and flying alongside of you and then they're gone.

Morgan: When World War II came to an end, Jerry never spoke a word of the war and, amazingly, no one ever asked about it. The silence was finally broken in 1981, when Jerry went to the movie "Platoon," a devastating story about ground soldiers in Vietnam. Oddly enough, this war film was the beginning of Jerry's healing.

Jerry: I had never cried about the war. I'd never thought about the Japanese or the Vietnamese as human beings. And when I saw them being bulldozed into this mass grave, it gave me time to slow down and to think, for the first time really, about what the war was and how it affected me.

Morgan: Shortly thereafter, he was asked to go to Japan for business, and reluctantly he went. The journey provided him an opportunity to make new friends and engage in soul-searching conversations with people from a country he had loathed. He recalls talking with one man by the name of --

Jerry: He opened my eyes to what we had done and what other human beings have done in war. And it seems at that point that everything that I hated about the Japanese, I could find something that we did in America that was equally devastating to another group of people. And I found for me that if war is to kill, then the pure purpose of life for me is to connect, and to connect to all human beings and to everything in nature.

Morgan: That life-changing visit was only the beginning of Jerry's transformation. in a strange twist of fate, his son, Robert, not only moved to Japan, he married a Japanese woman named Tokako, whose father had fought in the war on the Japanese side.

Jerry: He hated the Americans and I hated the Japanese. And today, we have three grandchildren in Japan. The only difference is that he responds to the grandchildren when they say “grandfather” in Japanese and I respond when they say "grandpa." And he's as gleeful about it as I am.

Morgan: After returning from the wedding, something inspired Jerry to start writing about his life. It compelled him to write a book called Of War and Weddings and to share his story with schools around the world.

Jerry: I woke up early on in Robert's marriage with a nightmare that his children in Japan would one day have to fly and fight against my other grandchildren in America. And I could see the planes passing in the sky, one coming from one direction and one coming from another direction. And I said to myself, "I can't let that happen."

Morgan: As Jerry talks to the students, they may not understand at first why they're getting a lesson on humanity. But it doesn't take long for them to realize that this veteran sitting among them is living proof of how we must all face our own prejudice.

Jerry: The one letter that means more to me than any is from a young man who said, "Dear Mr. Yellin, thank you for coming to my class." He said, "It took you 50 years to learn that all people were the same. You taught that to me in one class, and I'll never have to worry about that again in my life." And that moved me deeply.


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