Yates' story isn't necessarily unusual so much as it is disappearing. Some 320,000 Georgians served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Now, the latest estimate from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics shows 21,545 of those veterans still living in Georgia.
And in a storied building where political giants including former Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy could boast of their service during the war (Murphy was in the Pacific in the Navy), none still work under the Gold Dome except for Yates — a Griffin Republican who turns 94 on Thanksgiving Day.
“He tells these stories of flying over German tanks and dropping these 5-gallon tanks of gas on them and getting away before they could fire on him,” said state Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient who has spent hours happily ensconced in Yates’ green office chairs swapping stories.
“Members of the General Assembly are very, very aware of understanding the value of veterans who go off to far-off places and fight for us, and Yates epitomizes that,” Harbison said. “To have access to someone of that iconic character is just off the chain.”
Yet Yates will go out of his way not to brag. He takes pride in helping everybody who has a need. Most of it is helping through the government. When state Department of Veterans Service Commissioner Mike Roby first met Yates 21 years ago, Roby was an Army veteran who’d just been hired to run the field office in Griffin. Roby remembers a dignified man who pulled him aside one day soon after he’d started the job.
“He said, ‘Son, if you even need anything helping veterans, you just let me know,’ ” Roby said. “In my book, he walks the walk and talks the talk.”
Yates, however, said he simply has continued a good life’s work.
After graduating from high school (they didn’t have 12 grades back then), he left Georgia for work in California before the war. Drafted into the Army as a private in 1942, he became a liaison pilot and an officer, flying a Piper Cub airplane used often by the military for reconnaissance, transporting supplies and artillery spotting.
Yates flew more than 200 missions near or over enemy lines in Europe and was awarded six Air Medals and four battle stars. After the war, he earned his college degree and joined Ford Motor Co. as a biller, working his way up to become a depot manager in a 35-year career.
He lost his wife, Annie, about six years ago, but their 66-year marriage produced three children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. And he can tell you a great story about how they got married, a brown-eyed girl who loved her blue-eyed man.
“Winston Churchill was one of my favorites. His statement was: Never give up, never give up, never give up,” Yates said. And despite his wartime exploits and long career with Ford, he said he doesn’t take his time in office for granted. “I can tell you, this is the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he said.
It’s a claim that tickles his colleagues.
“Growing up in the Great Depression and serving along with three of his brothers in World War II taught him how to see challenges as opportunities and adversity as inspiration,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I’m fortunate to count John as a friend, and I’m proud to serve with him in the Legislature.”
Ralston “calls me his hero because I killed a few Nazis, you know,” Yates said. “But it was the right thing to do. I didn’t have any personal grudge against the soldiers.”
First elected in 1989 as one of the House’s few Republicans, Yates now serves as chairman of the House Defense & Veterans Affairs Committee. He keeps regular office hours at the Capitol one to two days a week, making the 40-minute drive himself up from the family farm near Sunny Side — where he still grows tomatoes, muscadine grapes and blueberries.
And he is very clear about why he ran for — and remains in — office. He plans one more re-election bid next year.
“I wrote my representative three letters and he didn’t answer any of them. If he had answered my letter, he would’ve stayed in office,” Yates said. “The second reason, I wanted to start a second party because I thought we’d have better government if we had two parties. And I still believe that.”
“And the third reason,” Yates said, “I just thought I could help the people.”