CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Robert Yancey Sr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in August, 1925. While in high school Yancey had surgery on both of his eyes, which forced him to leave school at age sixteen. He went to work as a truckdriver, transporting fuel and coal. Yancey was drafted into the US Navy on October 4, 1943. He was one of five brothers, all of whom served in the military during World War II. All survived the conflict.
The Navy was so short of men in 1943 that Yancey was not even sent to “boot camp” for basic training; he received all of his instruction aboard the ships he was assigned to. The first ship he was stationed on was the USS Alantina, where he served as a cook. In 1943, the only two jobs available to African-American sailors were those of cook or steward, the latter a waiter for the officers’ mess; although, cooks and stewards were often assigned additional duties. Yancey spent six months aboard the Alantina, training not only as a cook but as a member of a torpedo defense detachment. He was then transferred to Patrol Craft 1600, in Norfolk, VA. PC-1600 subsequently sailed to the Pacific, where the first action Yancey saw was an attack by Japanese kamikaze pilots. Although a cook, he was cross-trained and manned a battle station as an anti-aircraft gunner on the vessel’s top deck.
Yancey’s ship was involved in the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte and Luzon. He recalled that he gained great respect for the Filipino guerrilla fighters; he believed that without their assistance the United States would have had a much tougher time defeating the Japanese on the islands. Yancey spent the remainder of the war in the Pacific, participating in an additional landing at Mindoro in the Philippines, and in the invasion of Okinawa, with a stop at New Guinea. At the close of the war, Yancey was sent to Puerto Rico, as part of CB (Construction Battalion) 1615. There he worked unloading ships and coordinating transport of ammunition to storage on the island of Saint Thomas, remaining in Puerto Rico until his discharge on December 31, 1947.
Upon returning home to Philadelphia, Yancey joined the United States Navy Reserves. He had always liked the idea of being a police officer and decided to pursue that career, so he enrolled at the Institute of Criminology in Philadelphia, with the hope of eventually becoming a detective. Yancey graduated in 1950, but shortly after graduation he received a notice of readiness for a call back to active duty.
Since the Korean War was just beginning, Yancey thought he would certainly see some action. After spending four years at sea, though, he decided he had seen enough water and joined the Army. As a World War II veteran, he only had to complete eight weeks of basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, foregoing the additional eight weeks of advanced training mandated for other recruits. Following basic training, he was immediately promoted to sergeant and assigned to “C” Company of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment, part of the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division. The Twenty-fourth was among the last of the Army’s segregated all-African-American units, known popularly as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Sergeant Yancey was sent to Pusan, Korea, where he was reassigned to the regiment’s Headquarters Company. The North Koreans continued to attack the Pusan Perimeter, while the Americans built up their forces in the late summer of 1950. The Twenty-fourth was later awarded the Republic of Korea Presidential Citation for its defense of the perimeter. Two members of the regiment were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
When the American army broke out of the Pusan Perimeter following the US Marine landing at Inchon, the Twenty-fifth Division was the spearhead of the army’s advance. The Twenty-fourth Regiment was often the division’s spearhead unit, launching reconnaissance missions into enemy territory. In late November, 1950, the Twenty-fourth moved towards the Yalu River in North Korea, and at the end of the month made initial contact with elements of the Chinese Communist army, which subsequently launched a massive attack over the North Korean border, tumbling the Americans southward. In the fighting that ensued, the Twenty-fourth lost more than a third of its men.
Sergeant Yancey described fighting the Chinese and North Koreans as “complete chaos.” The Chinese were very good at infiltration and would often penetrate the American front lines and surround individual units. The mountainous terrain made holding a secure front line even more difficult. Moving supplies to the front was a long and dangerous process, and getting the wounded out to safety was equally difficult; each stretcher required six men to carry it, and was accompanied by four riflemen for protection. Front line units suffered heavy casualties and received constant replacements, but many of the new soldiers were unprepared for combat, because the Army, in desperate need of men, was shipping them overseas before they were adequately trained.
Weather conditions in Korea added another degree of difficulty to the military mission. During the winter, daytime temperatures hovered around thirty degrees Fahrenheit, and at night would drop to thirty or forty degrees below zero. Some soldiers actually froze to death in their sleep. Yancey remembered that it was necessary to gather sticks, leaves or anything available to put under a tent in order to provide some insulation and reduce the chance of freezing. On one occasion, he developed such a bad case of frostbite on his feet that his boots needed to be cut off. The injury resulted in him being declared unfit for infantry duty, and today he receives a 100% disability for the chronic condition that developed as a result of the frostbite.
In October 1951 the battered, bloodied Twenty-fourth Regiment was inactivated, and the survivors were withdrawn from Korea to Sasebo, Japan aboard a transport ship. Midway through the trip, the ship was caught in a typhoon and driven onto a coral reef, where it was stranded. The ship was taking on water fast and Yancey, the only soldier on board with naval experience and training in dealing with disasters at sea, acted quickly, organizing men to keep the ship afloat until help arrived. After three days, Navy rescue ships reached the vessel, rescued the passengers and crew and conveyed them to Sasebo. Tragedy again struck the men of the luckless Twenty-fourth on the way home from Japan, as a plane transporting some of them crashed into the Pacific. Yancey’s luck held, though; although he was supposed to be on board that aircraft, he had fortunately missed the flight.
On returning to the United States, Sergeant Yancey was transferred from the infantry to the military police and stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Although desegregation of the military (initiated in 1948) was completed during the Korean War, racism continued, especially on bases in Southern states that still had legal civilian segregation. A major informed Sergeant Yancey that even though he was a military policeman, he was not authorized to stop or question white soldiers — for any reason. Growing up in Philadelphia, Yancey had never experienced the level of racism that he encountered in Georgia. He recalled, however, that he would not let himself give into negativity and continued to do his job to the best of his ability. On one occasion, he broke up a fight between four soldiers, two of whom were white and two black. A civilian police officer ordered Yancey to hand over the soldiers; Yancey refused and took the men back to their barracks. The major had Yancey arrested for pulling his firearm on a civilian and threatened him with court-martial. After thirty days under house arrest, Yancey was able to tell his side of the story to the colonel in charge of the military police (provost marshal). The colonel expressed outrage at the major’s behavior and immediately released Yancey from arrest and returned him to duty.
Conflict with the major continued; however, and by 1953 Yancey had had enough of it and asked the colonel to send him back to Korea. The colonel resolved the problem by transferring both of them, sending Yancey to Mannheim, Germany, where he was assigned to an ordnance unit processing old American army vehicles that were being transferred to NATO forces. Yancey described the job as, “not being right for him,” and he recalled that his superiors criticized him for “being too hard on his subordinates.”
After his stint in Germany, Yancey returned to the United States and was assigned to an infantry basic training unit at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as the only African-American noncommissioned officer in the outfit. His job was to train drafted conscientious objectors for noncombat duties. Again he was criticized for being too hard on his subordinates. Yancey, however, remembering his combat experience in Korea, maintained that “he was hard on them in order to train them to be ready for the harshest battle situations.” Yancey’s next assignment was to a medical unit attached to the 809th Engineer Battalion, which was building railroads in rural areas of Thailand. He subsequently served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 in the Medical Service Corps, where he was in charge of transporting patients from the battlefield to field hospitals in the Phu Tai Valley, near Qui Nhon. In his two years of duty in Vietnam, Yancey never lost a patient, and he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service there.
Sergeant Yancey retired from the Army in 1971, settled in New Jersey and received degrees in Behavioral Psychology and History. After graduation he worked as a teacher at Trenton State Prison, instructing inmates in social studies, and later became State Coordinator for Behavioral Modification in the New Jersey prison system, where he worked for twenty years, attempting to inculcate life lessons he had learned himself in a long and distinguished military career. He remembered that the most important lessons he had learned, however, came from his father, which he summed up as to “always treat others the way you want to be treated, and to never give in to negativity.” He said that it was those simple rules that allowed him to deal with life itself and to overcome the racism that he had encountered along the way.
After retiring from the prison system, Robert Yancey offered his services as a volunteer, performing the same job he had as an employee, for two or three days a week, which he continues. He told the interviewer that he believes it is a veteran’s duty to share his or her experiences with and teach younger generations. He is currently the State Commander of the Disabled American Veterans, and he strongly encourages all veterans to share their stories with others.
Robert H. Yancey Sr. passed away on September 19, 2017.