John Howard Yancey was possibly Arkansas’s most decorated Marine Corps war heroes. His actions in World War II on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War won him two Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Yancy was also a champion of civil rights in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Arkansas.
John was the son of Mary and John Benjamin Yancey, who owned a gas station in Plummerville. He graduated Central High School and then attended Ouachita College (now Ouachita University) but left school in 1942 to join the Marine Corps to fight in World War II. After basic training in San Diego, he volunteered for what became a legendary unit in the Marine Corps that was being formed, Carlson’s Raiders, commanded by Colonel Evans F. Carlson. John would eventually become Colonel Evans’ bodyguard.
In November 1942, John’s unit was on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, and had captured a strategic artillery placement during a night of hand-to-hand combat. His leadership in this battle earned him his first Navy Cross and a battlefield commission to lieutenant.
After the war ended, he was assigned to the Marine Corps Reserves Rifle Company in Little Rock. He married JoAnn Campbell in January of 1950 and 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 return to active duty in Korea. John was assigned as a platoon leader with the 7th Marine Regiment and in short order was on his way to combat again.
At the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, with the temperature thirty-five degrees below zero and with his superiors dead, John found himself in command of an infantry platoon. Despite more than ninety percent casualties, the platoon defended its position against 120,000 advancing Red Chinese, earning John his second Navy Cross and a Silver Star Medal for hand-to-hand combat that helped save two Marine regiments. During two days of what was later called one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, he suffered three wounds, one from grenade sharpnel lodged in the roof of his mouth, another from a bullet that tore into his nose and the third and most serious from a bullet that penetrated the sinus cavities of his right cheek and lodged in the back of his neck, popping his eye out on his cheek. Only after finally succumbing to loss of blood and not being able to see did he relinquish his command. John was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but as all of his superior officers were killed in the battle and there was no written report of his actions, the award was not processed. An effort was made on several occasions to get him nominated for the award but it was always denied.
John was very active in his civilian life. He was an authority on Mexican and Aztec history (he would spend his winters in Mexico and was known by the locals as “Jungle Tiger”). Back home in Arkansas, 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. One of the disqualifying issues was the poor condition of his teeth. John was quoted as having said, “I wasn’t planning on biting the sonsofbitches” (Viet Cong) or something to that effect. 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.
John died on May 16, 1986, and his close friend, General McMath, planned every detail of the funeral. The Rev. Trumann Welch officiated the service. John was survived by his wife, Mrs. Jo Ann Campbell Yancey, a son Stuart Yancey of Little Rock; four daughters, Miss Anne Yancey of Springdale, Mrs. Dena Yancey-Launet and Miss Laura Yancey, both of Little Rock and Mrs. Mary Burk of Los Angeles, Calif; a brother J. R. Yancey of Little Rock and one grandchild. A detachment of the Marine Corps League in Dallas, Texas is named after him.