The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 7:57 pm

Fate leads to vet's first Honor Flight

Brian Francisco | Washington editor

An ex-fighter pilot who flew the last U.S. combat mission of World War II has never boarded an Honor Flight for a group visit to war memorials in Washington, D.C.

That should change on the morning of Oct. 7, when retired Army Air Corps Capt. Jerry Yellin is scheduled to be a passenger on the Honor Flight Northeast Indiana jet that will depart from Fort Wayne International Airport carrying 85 other veterans.

It’s not as if Yellin, 91, rarely leaves his home in Fairfield, Iowa. He makes public appearances around the country for Spirit of ’45, a nonprofit organization that honors the achievements and sacrifices of the WWII generation. He attended the V-E Day flyover in Washington in May. And the author of four books returned in March to the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where he and other fighter pilots were based in 1945 for missions escorting U.S. warplanes that bombed mainland Japan.

It was during a 2010 trip to Iwo Jima that Fort Wayne resident Dennis Covert met Yellin while both were riding an elevator at a hotel in Guam.

The next day, Covert took a photograph of Yellin near where Marines had raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Covert later sent the photo to Yellin, and the two began corresponding by email.

Covert, a member of the board of directors for Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, asked Yellin this year whether he had ever taken an Honor Flight. Yellin had not, so Covert extended an invitation, and Yellin accepted.

"One of the questions we ask: Can you walk the distance of a football field without assistance? And he said, ‘I can run it if you want me to,’" Covert said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "He’s in pretty good shape."

The flight will depart Fort Wayne International at 8:30 a.m. and return about 9 p.m. Passengers will include 62 Korean War veterans and 24 WWII veterans, according to Bob Myer, president of the Honor Flight board. Two female veterans will be among the group.

Honor Flight participants fly for free but must be accompanied by volunteer guardians, who pay $400. Yellin’s guardian in Washington will be New York actress and film producer Diane Hawkins, a friend to both Yellin and Covert.

Hawkins met Yellin on Iwo Jima on that day in 2010 when all three were on the island, Covert said. Hawkins is making a film about her uncle John Basilone, a hero of the 1942-43 Guadalcanal Campaign who was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

"It’s sort of an endless line of coincidences, although somebody said there are no coincidences, it’s just meant to be," said Covert, a Navy combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

He said Yellin and Hawkins became friends in part through their shared interest in helping veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yellin co-wrote "The Resilient Warrior," a 2011 book about PTSD, in which he said he suffered for 30 years before he began practicing Transcendental Meditation. 

Yellin’s first Honor Flight will come less than two months after the 70th anniversary of his combat mission Aug. 14, 1945, the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. A P-51 Mustang pilot, Yellin flew 19 missions over Japan in 1945 and has said he flew with 16 pilots who died in the war, including his wingman on their final mission.

A day after the Honor Flight, Yellin is scheduled to speak to airmen at the Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne.

The nonprofit Honor Flight Northeast Indiana sponsors four flights a year. Demand remains high even though most WWII veterans are in their 90s.

"We have over 400 Korean War vets on a waiting list right now," Covert said. "And I guarantee you we will get more applications."

Each flight costs $65,000 and is financed through donations.

"We’re committed to doing it, and as long as we can get the support, we’ll continue to do it," Covert said. 

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