Earliest verifiable image of John McKenzie Young.
Identity photograph from his USMC Service Record.
Photograph taken October 1, 1920.
Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
Possibly the most enigmatic member of the Central Asiatic Expeditions was John McKenzie Young, 1894 - 1931. Despite nearly 30 years of research, I am still unable to determine what parts of Young's life are real, what are outright fabrications by Young and or others, and what may have been intentional obfuscation by agencies as yet unknown, for reasons as yet also unknown.
In Part One, I present a brief overview of Mac's life as it was popularly presented during and shortly after his lifetime. I have included the entire text of an article written by Roy Chapman Andrews published shortly after Young's mysterious death in 1931. In Part Two I will point out inconsistencies in the popular mythos, and present what I do know, and what remains to be verified.
Central Asian Explorer - John McKenzie Young.
The Arctic explorer, Admiral Peary, said : "The three most important qualities which an explorer must have are loyalty, unselfishness and dependability." Peary might also have been describing members of the United States Marine Corps., in particular John McKenzie Young.
"Mac", as his friends called him, was a veteran of France, and a former member of Canada's famed Northwest Mounted Police. After W.W. I Young became uncomfortable in civilian life and enlisted in the Marine Corps. However, Young had an unusual request; the Marines must send him to the furthest posting possible from America, the Legation Guard in Peking, China.
Unbeknownst to Young, his desire to escape would propel him into an extraordinary, but little known chapter of Marine Corps history. Within a few short months, Young found himself playing a role in the largest non-military expedition to ever leave America at that time, the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, bound for the barren wastes of Northern China and Outer Mongolia.
Officially the expedition's chief mechanic, Young also had secret orders from his commanding officer to make a reconnaissance of the area traversed by the expedition, the first ever conducted by U.S. military personnel in the area. Young became the confidant of the expedition leader, Roy Chapman Andrews, and because of his abilities, was placed in charge of the entire expedition during the winter of 1925 - 1926.
Young was present during numerous important scientific discoveries that included: discovery of the first dinosaurs east of the Himalayas, the first dinosaur eggs, and the first evidence of ancient man in Central Asia.
Young returned to America in 1931, a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, at Mare's Island. Mysteriously, one year later, Young was found dead on a lonely road in Northern California. The official cause was suicide, but Young's friends and family would not believe it.
|J. McKenzie Young Just After The Great Blizzard in Mongolia.|
J. McKenzie Young
A Gallant Comrade in the Field of Exploration - A Resourceful Worker - A Steadfast Friend.
By Roy Chapman Andrews. Natural History Magazine. 1932
Mac Young is dead. It is difficult for me to realize that, for he was ever filled with joie de vivre. Mac always laughed at life, taking the good with the bad, the thick with the thin, never complaining when Fate played him a scurvy trick. Kind-hearted, generous to a fault, loyal, affectionate, sympathetic, faithful to his friendships, — that was McKenzie Young. I shall not write a formal biography of Mac. He would not want that. He was overmodest and if I said anything at all, he would infinitely prefer that I spoke of him as I knew him in the life we lived together.
Our friendship meant a great deal to us both. It was the kind of friendship that never hesitates to ask a sacrifice each of the other, knowing that it will be given gladly. For six years we were companions in the field and out of it. We shared the joys and disappointments, the pleasures and the hardships of life in the desert. In Peking he had a courtyard in the Expedition's beautiful old Manchu palace. We lived there together, Mac and I, in harmony and happiness. Therefore we knew each other as few men ever get to know their fellows.
Mac's life was always full of color and romance. He was a typical rolling stone, gathering no moss, but as he often said; "Who wants moss, anyway?" He had been in school in Canada and during the first year of the World War he joined the Canadian forces. Hardly did he land in France before his unit went to the front. Wounded almost immediately, he was sent back to England to recover. Twice more he stopped pieces of shell, for he was a gunner in a battery of six-inch howitzers. Those experiences were interesting and he told them well. On our long trips together across the desert, he kept me fascinated for hours with accounts of his big guns and how they fought them in historic battles.
|At The Expedition's Headquarters.|
Mac Young with his dog "Pat" in Peking.
After the war, life in a city was flat and stale. Like so many others, he sought excitement again. This time he turned to the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, that splendid patrol "who always get their man." From there a fur hunting expedition took him into the tundras of the Arctic where he learned to know the hazards of a trapper's life. Back in Seattle, robbed in a hotel of his hard won share of the sale of furs, he turned again to the Service. In the U. S. Marine Corps, he went to China and there I met him.
The Colonel of his detachment, my old friend Hal Dunlap, who as a Brigadier-General recently met a tragic death in France, knew and liked him. Colonel Dunlap arranged his detail to the Central Asiatic Expedition when he found that we needed a motor expert. This work is the most arduous of any job on the expedition. At the end of the day's run, when the other men can rest and make themselves comfortable, the motor experts must fill all the tanks with gasoline and inspect every car minutely. If any- thing is wrong it must be repaired that night. A motor man must accompany every reconnaissance trip. If a car is mired he is the one who gets it out. Always the hardest and the most disagreeable work falls to his lot. Mac did it cheerfully and with skill, never complaining. In the later years I depended upon him more and more for every conceivable task.
During the winter of 1926-7, I was in America. Word came down from the frozen reaches of the Mongolian plateau that our camel herd had been taken by a brigand. Mac knew that the bandit chief was a friend of mine; that he never would have driven off our camels if he had known that they belonged to the Expedition. So into the Gobi he went. It was forty below zero and he found the bandit's yurt. The chief said it was all a mistake and that he would return the camels at once. Mac started back but a blizzard caught him before he was half way to Kalgan. While he was driving in the bitter cold and snow, all the fingers of both hands were frozen. The Wan Chuan Pass, where the trail drops 3000 feet to the lowlands, was a hell of driftcd snow and ice. Suffering tortures, Mac somehow got down the Pass and into Kalgan. The frozen bodies of eight Chinese who were caught in the blizzard on the trail were found some days later. Only a man with a magnificent physique and indomitable courage could have got through alive.
|Halfway to Kalgan.|
Caught in a Blizzard, Young's car stalled in the Snow drifts.
At Kalgan Mac waited twenty-four hours for a train. Then in an open steel ear packed with Chinese herded like sheep he rode fourteen hours in below zero weather to Peking. By that time he was half delirious with pain. Before he could be persuaded to go to the hospital, he insisted upon sending me a cable that our camels were safe. Devotion to the Expedition and loyalty to me were ever the most important factors in his life. At the hospital the doctors believed it necessary to amputate all the fingers of both hands. Gangrene and certain death would follow if the dead black stumps were left. Mac said "No." He would rather die than go through life with only his two thumbs left.
Dr. Harold Loucks, the Expedition's surgeon, examined him carefully. His blood was pure, his body as hard and fit as a trained athlete. Doctor Loucks reported that there was just a chance of saving his fingers but that it would mean weeks of pain.
"Let's go," said Mac with a grin.
He did not escape the pain. Night after night I would find him pacing the courtyard. Together we would walk in the moonlight until from sheer exhaustion he could sleep. Thus it was for weary months but no one ever heard Mac complain.
"I'm better," was the invariable reply to his legion of sympathizers.
All Peking paid homage to his splendid courage. Seven months later, when the last operation had been performed, only the ends of four fingers were taken away, and he could use his hands almost as well as ever.
Mac had physical, as well as moral, courage. We had many experiences together which made me feel that he and Walter Granger were the two men of all the world I'd like to have at my side in a serious row.
|Young's Car Breaking Through The Ice.|
In 1930 we were coming down from Mongolia alone in two cars. We had been warned that the trail swarmed with bandits. When we passed the Mongol village belonging to our caravan men, Bato's brother ran out to signal us. He said that the previous night thirty brigands had killed two Chinese and robbed their cars only ten miles south on the road. They might still be there; he did not know. Mac and I went on with our rifles and revolvers ready for action. We were not asking for trouble, but we did not intend to be driven off the road by thirty Chinese bandits. The cars had been held up near a mud house which had long been a brigand rendezvous. When we arrived, all was quiet and the place seemed deserted, for even the Mongols from several yurts had gone or kept indoors. We went by at full speed and passed Chap Ser in the same way, reaching Kalgan with no difficulty.
A week later Mac went back. Ho drove one car and Liu Hsih-ku, one of our Chinese, the other. I had a presentiment that something would happen, and asked Mac to be particularly careful on the road. Two days of rain had made the trail like grease. He fought mud all the way where we had driven over a hard, dry terrain. On the second morning after passing Chap Ser, two Mongol children told him that bandits were robbing a caravan just ahead. It was at the familiar place of the mud house.
The ground was so soft that Mac could not leave the road and circle over the hills and he decided to go on. The mud house appeared half obscured by a train of oxcarts. Several men stood about. Mac had nearly passed the house when from behind a low wall thirty yards away three Chinese opened fire with Luger pistols. Bullets sang all about him, but he was not hit. He slowed down, swung about in the seat and took a snap shot at one fellow who was doing the most persistent shooting. His bullet struck a small stone in the mud wall an inch from the man's head. Either the steel jacket or fragments of rock hit the bandit's face. He fell backward, but the other two kept on firing.
Mac dared not take his hands of the wheel, for the car was skidding dangerously. Holding his rifle in one hand like a pistol, he fired three more shots. In the meantime a dozen brigands standing near horses on the other side of the road began shooting with rifles and pistols. Some had mounted and were riding after him when Mac slowed down, took a good aim and killed a horse. That ended the matter. The bandits stopped and galloped away.
When the Expedition returned a month later, they learned that there had been eleven brigands in the mud house. They expected an easy time when the two cars approached, and got the surprise of their lives. Instead of finding sheeplike Chinese who would have stopped at the first shot, they had figuratively grabbed a viper by the tail which proceeded to sting them unmercifully.
Unselfishness was one of Mac's most outstanding virtues; it is, I may remark, a sine qua non for an explorer. Time after time when we have been crossing the desert together, when water was short, when the sun had turned the sand into a glaring furnace, when our throats were parched and our mouths like cotton, I have had to watch Mac to see that he took his share. I have slept with him in the open on the summit of the Altai Mountains where the cold bit like a knife, and waked to find myself with more than my half of the blanket. Those are the things that one never can forget; the things that endear a man to his fellows as nothing else can. Mac returned to New York from China early in 1931. The Chinese had forced a temporary suspension of the Expedition and, until we could see our way clear to resume operations, the headquarters had been closed.
|En Route To Mongolia|
McKenzie Young and AMNH President Henry Fairfield Osborn at the barrier outside of Kalgan, in 1923
In August he started to drive alone in his car from New York to California. In Nevada he met two nice-looking young men who asked him for a lift. Mac never refused a kindness to any human being. Of course, he agreed. Near Lovelock they suggested that it would be well to fill his water bottle from a spring beside the road. While he sat in the car, one of the men doped the canteen and offered him a drink. A short time later the drugged water made him so sleepy that he could not go on. He stopped the car beside the road and, while one of the men effusively thanked him for the ride, the other stepped behind, bashed him over the head, robbed and left him in the motor.
He never recovered from the blow. During the following two weeks he complained of an unendurable headache, but continued on his way westward. On September 3 his body was found in his car in a lonely lane near Eureka, California, with a bullet in the back of his head. Murder or suicide? The coroner reported it to be the latter. Personally I cannot believe that verdict to be true. Unless it were done when he was temporarily insane from the pain in his head, he never would have taken his own life. Of that I am sure. Mac was only thirty-seven years old and he had much to live for. With his passing I have lost a dear friend. His place on the Expedition never can be filled. When we return to Mongolia, something vital which we loved will be gone from the life on the desert.