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Book of wartime letters reveals impact of battle, effect of time

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"I flew over your country several times as a young man. Many of my friends were killed. I have not resolved all of that in my mind yet. As a father, I will not stand in the way of my son's decisions. But as an American, I am not sure I can accept his decision wholeheartedly." _Jerry Yellin to Takado Yamakawa, his son's fiancee

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Forty-three years after he flew missions over Japan as a fighter pilot, Jerry Yellin learned his son planned to marry a Japanese woman, and all the ghosts of World War II came flooding back.

"I thought of Pearl Harbor, China, what they did to our POWs, and a hatred for Japan came over me," Yellin, who now lives in Vero Beach, Fla., recalled. "I could see the 16 guys I flew with, killed by Japan, and I thought, how could my son marry the daughter of my enemy?"

Yellin softened when he met his son's fiancee, but what really made a difference was "an absolutely amazing letter" she sent him.

Takado Yamakawa wrote of her parents' objections to marrying a "gaijin," a foreigner, especially an American. Her father, Taro Yamakawa, had been training as a pilot at the end of the war. He always regretted that he didn't get to fire a shot at the Americans.

She told Yellin what her father told her: "I was just beginning, after 43 years, to accept the changing times. For all those years, I was pretending to be flexible and adaptable. But now you wanted to marry an American. To marry the son of my enemy!"

That touched off an 18-year series of letters between the families, and several visits _beginning with the wedding of Takado Yamakawa and Robert Yellin. In the process, once-bitter enemies became family.

It's one of many startling stories of war and remembrance, pain and loss, hatred and reconciliation in a book of wartime correspondence, "Behind the Lines," to be published this week as the world begins to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Historian Andrew Carroll, whose "War Letters" collection was a best seller, traveled to Germany, Russia, Japan, China, Vietnam and several other countries. He tracked down stories and letters, including some during visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.

His goal was to capture the wartime experiences of soldiers and civilians from a global perspective through individual stories—in letters from Americans, their allies and enemies.

Carroll, 35, found a common theme in every country: "Older generations want younger people to know just how costly war can be, how normalcy can change to something horrible very quickly."

With another round of World War II retrospectives coming, it's worth remembering that the global conflict is more than history to those who survived it. For them and for their children, the war's consequences live on.

For Yellin, now 81, his son's wedding in Japan in 1987 forced him to confront his resentment toward the Japanese. He found his daughter-in-law's family formal but warm, and one night he and his wartime counterpart, Taro Yamakawa, had a long talk.

"We bared our souls. He said he never realized other people could feel the same way about family and spirituality," Yellin recalled. "It changed my life, made me look at myself and think about what is important."

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"Only you and I, Yamakawa-San, can know about the soul-searching we both had to go through to reach this level of complete acceptance. We indeed are both fortunate to have reached this stage of life." _Jerry Yellin to Taro Yamakawa

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"I am mourning for a very good friend. Indeed, true friendship it was, although we found ourselves in a war against each other—he, the American destroyer commander, and I, the German submarine commander. But this war was only the dreadfully loathsome setup which compelled us to fight against each other, but in our hearts we naval men never felt hatred against each other." _Gunter Leopold to Lois Hoffman, widow of George Hoffman

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Lois Hoffman knew her husband and Gunter Leopold had corresponded for almost 40 years, but the letter she received soon after her husband died in 1992 "was just the most remarkable I've ever received."

In early 1945, U.S. aircraft sunk Leopold's U-boat in the Atlantic and he was rescued by the crew of George Hoffman's destroyer, the USS Corry. He wrote that he never forgot how Hoffman protected him as a wounded prisoner of war.

"George looked after me day by day, sitting by my bedside and devoting many hours to tell me about America, his family and his service in the navy," Leopold recalled. The crew's generosity "was doubtlessly the result of George's splendid example as a commander."

Three months after rescuing Leopold, Hoffman's destroyer was sunk supporting the D-Day invasion on Utah beach. Hoffman and most of his crew were rescued.

Lois Hoffman, 85, living in a retirement home in McLean, Va., said her husband used to show her some of Leopold's letters: "Their relationship grew over the years, and we hoped to visit each other, but it never happened."

Their daughter, Connie Phelps, gazed at the letter from Leopold, who died several years ago, and reflected on the wartime heroism of her father: "What's so powerful to me is his humanity. It made me so proud."

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"To the best of my recollection I have told the story of George Hoffman a thousand times as that of a knight in shining armor in a heroic epic." _Gunter Leopold to Lois Hoffman

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"You instilled in me the values that you learned during your service, and it has made me a better soldier. Most important, it has made me a better person." _Sgt. Justin Merhoff to his grandfather, Hugh Merhoff, a World War II veteran, in a handwritten letter last year.

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Justin Merhoff had a difficult childhood, and his grandfather, a general practitioner in Red Bluff, Calif., helped raise him. It gave the younger Merhoff an appreciation for the lives and sacrifices of the World War II generation.

So when Merhoff, now 25, became part of the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., he volunteered for unusual duty: funeral honors team. He served at the burials of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"I got to give a family member the flag. I got to hear all the different stories. It know it sounds sappy, but it was an honor to do this," Merhoff said.

He wrote his grandfather, Hugh Merhoff, about the funerals—about "the guys who were not U.S. citizens but were fighting for our country," about the black World War II vet "who fought for a country that at the time would only recognize him as a second-class citizen."

Hugh Merhoff, 77, said he was "very touched" by the letter: "I don't want to be held up as a hero. I was drafted at the end of the war and did not see action.

"Justin is a very sensitive man. Doing funerals was his idea," the elder Merhoff added.

Sixty years after Hugh Merhoff's generation ended one war, the call to duty for other wars hasn't changed.

In a few months, Justin Merhoff's brigade is scheduled to go to Afghanistan.

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"You are the reason I am in the Army today." _Justin Merhoff to his grandfather

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For years, Andrew Carroll has been campaigning to urge people to save correspondence, from yellowing letters in an attic to e-mails from troops in Iraq. He's turning over letters he has collected to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York. He has also held writing workshops for troops and helped revive the handy pocket-sized Armed Services Editions of popular books. For more information on his projects, check


(Andrew Carroll will be on a book tour for "Behind the Lines" the next few months. A few dates at or near Knight Ridder cities: May 16: Philadelphia; May 17-18: San Francisco; May 24: Miami; June 6: Detroit; June 8-10: Dallas; June 28: Philadelphia; July 1: Fort Bragg, N.C.

For details, call Lucy Kenyon at Scribner, 212-632-4947.)


(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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