John Howard Yancey (1918–1986)
John Howard Yancey was one of Arkansas’s most colorful war heroes. His actions in the South Pacific in World War II and the Korean War garnered him two Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. He was a champion of civil rights in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Arkansas.
John Yancey was born on April 27, 1918, in Plumerville (Conway County) to Mary and John Benjamin Yancey, who owned a gas station; his younger brother, John Benjamin Yancey Jr., became a Little Rock (Pulaski County) police officer. He attended what is now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) but left college in 1942 to join the Marine Corps as World War II was beginning. After basic training in San Diego, California, he volunteered for an elite unit that was being formed. This group, which became known as Carlson’s Raiders, was in the forefront of the major U.S. offensive in the South Pacific. Yancey soon became Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson’s bodyguard.
In November 1942, Yancey and a handful of men on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, captured a strategic artillery placement during a night of hand-to-hand combat. He was awarded a battlefield commission to lieutenant, as well as his first Navy Cross. After the war, he was discharged to the Marine Reserves Rifle Company in Little Rock, where he married JoAnn Campbell in January of 1950. They began a family and operated a liquor store in Little Rock named Yancey’s. He was thirty-two when the Korean War began in 1950, and he volunteered to fight with the Marines. At Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, with the temperature thirty-five degrees below zero, Yancey found himself in command of a platoon. Despite more than ninety percent casualties, the platoon defended its position against 120,000 advancing Red Chinese, earning Yancey his second Navy Cross and a Silver Star for hand-to-hand combat that helped save two Marine regiments. He received many serious injuries and was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but as all of his superior officers were killed in the battle, there was no written report of his actions.
Back home, Yancey ran unsuccessfully for state senator in the 1960s, supporting integration and opposing Governor Orval Faubus. He won a lawsuit against Faubus to reapportion the state so voting would be racially balanced. His wife was on the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), which fought to keep Little Rock schools open.
General Sidney McMath (governor of Arkansas from 1949 to 1953) suggested that Yancey become his executive officer in the Vietnam War when he was assigned to Vietnam, but the Marine Corps turned him down because of his previous injuries. Despite his tough image, he was a student of poetry and philosophy. Yancey was the model for the bronze bust of Count Pulaski—the Revolutionary war hero for whom the county is named—in the county courthouse. The Arkansas Historical Society established John Yancey–Count Pulaski Day—Two Heroes Bonded Together in Bronze—in 1999, which is celebrated in the fall.
Yancey died on May 16, 1986, and his close friend, General McMath, planned every detail of the funeral. Yancey is buried in Little Rock National Cemetery. A department of the Marine Corps League in Texas is named after Yancey.
For additional information:
Hammel, Eric. Chosin: Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1990.
Wilson, Jim. Retreat, Hell! We’re Just Attacking in Another Direction. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988.
Charles William Cunning
Last Updated: 11/15/2010