This Week in Military History: October 6th – 12th
October 8th: Alvin York Earns the Medal of Honor
The US Army has had more than its fair share of heroes (and then some) throughout its history. But few have achieved the legendary status of a tall, burly, would-be conscientious objector from Tennessee. Ask anybody with even the slightest knowledge of military history to start naming famous war heroes, chances are Alvin York will be one of the first they come up with. But most people might not know much about the man himself and how he became synonymous with battlefield bravery.
Sergeant Alvin York
Born in a two-room log cabin in rural Tennessee to a poor family, Alvin and his ten siblings had little formal education. A grand total of nine months in school, to be precise. Most of his early life centered on working the family’s small farm in addition to hunting and fishing for food. When his father passed away in 1911, then-23-year-old Alvin was the oldest of his brother still living on the farm. Thus, he took over running the place as well as helping his mother raise the younger children. In order to better provide for them he started working first in railroad construction and then as a logger. He was, by all accounts, a hard and diligent worker.
The York family cabin.
He was also a hard-drinking bar-fighter with several arrests as a result of saloon brawls. But Alvin went through a religious awakening in January, 1915 and became a pious pacifist through and through. No doubt to the delight of his mother who had tried for years to change his ways. But Alvin’s peaceful bent was tested by America’s entry into WWI in April of 1917. As a result, all men aged 21-31 had to register for the draft. When Alvin filled out his form, in the space asking if he claimed an exemption and why he bluntly wrote, “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.” His conscientious objector status was denied, but appealed the decision. Then the Army went ahead and drafted him anyway before the appeal could go through. In November, 1917 he reported to the 82nd Infantry Division (which would become the 82nd Airborne Division in 1942) Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon), Georgia.
Alvin York’s appeal form for conscientious objector status.
Unsurprisingly, York took issue with being forced to train and prepare for warfare and made no secret about it. At first. Before long the commanding officers of his company (Captain Edward Danforth) and battalion (Major G. Edward Buxton) convinced him to reconsider his moral stance, partially by quoting Bible passages that endorsed warfare. After that, and a brief leave to visit his mother, York decided that going to war was the right thing to do. He, along with the rest of the 82nd, shipped off to France in the spring of 1918. By September they were fighting in the bloody St. Mihiel Offensive.
Members of the 82nd during the St. Mihiel Offensive.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive followed closely after St Mihiel. On October 8th, York’s battalion attempted to attack German positions on a small hill outside the town of Chatel-Chéhéry in order to gain control of the Decauville Railroad, but were stopped by intense machine gun fire. A detachment of eighteen men were picked to infiltrate the German lines and take out the machine guns. One of those men was the newly-promoted Corporal York.
Hill 223, the American objective.
The mission initially went fairly well. The Americans, led by Sergeant Bernard Early, made it behind the German lines and succeeded in capturing the headquarters of a unit preparing a counter attack. But while they were dealing with their new prisoners, a German machine gunner spotted them and opened fire. Six Americans were immediately killed, another three wounded, and York suddenly found himself in charge. Leaving his seven un-injured men to take cover and guard the prisoners, Alvin attacked the Germans firing at them all by his lonesome. What happened next, York aptly described in his diary:
“As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
York’s actions as depicted the the 1919 Frank Schoonover painting Sergeant Alvin C. York.
Yes. Yes he was. He picked off or otherwise deterred every single enemy machine gunner. At one point, six Germans attempted a bayonet charge to finally put a stop to York, but he shot them all down with his sidearm. Seeing the casualties the lone American rifleman was inflicting on his men (and failing to even wound York despite personally unloading his pistol at him) the commander of the battalion York was fighting, Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, decided to surrender. Luckily, Vollmer knew English and York accepted. York and the seven survivors of his detachment returned to American lines with 132 prisoners.
Alvin York returning to his unit with his prisoners. York is the helmeted man walking behind the first few Germans.
The machine guns silenced, the Americans renewed their attack to take the railroad. York was promoted to sergeant and received the Distinguished Service Cross. It didn’t take long for that to get upgraded to the Medal of Honor. General John “Black Jack” Pershing himself present York with his medal. When French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, presented York a Croix de Guerre he told the young American, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe.” Probably, yeah.
A Marshal of France is technically a seven star general. So when one of them compliments someone, it’s a pretty big deal.
The war ended in November and York returned to the US the next May, unaware that a recent article in the Saturday Evening Post detailing his simple background and heroic exploits had made him a public figure. He arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey on the 22nd and was probably more than a tad surprised to find himself booked at the Waldorf Astoria, feted by a banquet, and taken on a tour of the city in a special subway car. After that he was sent to Washington DC where, in the Capitol, the House of Representatives gave him a standing ovation.
Sergeant York with several members of Congress.
Now a public figure, York used his fame to endorse and support all manner of charitable and civic causes and organizations. When he finally gave in to popular demand for an autobiography (based on the above-quoted diary), he used it as a way to promote and fund educational programs. He sold his life rights to a Hollywood producer (a decision that resulted in the highest grossing film of 1941, Sergeant York, and an Oscar for York-portrayer Gary Cooper) because he wanted the money to fund an interdenominational Bible school. And as WWII drew closer, York established himself as one of the few public voices calling for America to intervene on Britain and France’s behalf against the Axis Powers.
Sergeant York was the highest grossing film of 1941 and earned Gary Cooper his first Academy Award.
When America did finally enter the Second World War, York tried to reenlist because of course he did. Unfortunately for him (but very fortunately for the Germans this time around), by age 54 York was overweight, arthritic, and borderline diabetic. Not wanting to let him go to waste, the Army commissioned him as a major in the Signal Corps and put him to work touring bases and promoting bond drives. When that war ended and the Cold War began, York frequently espoused his belief that America should strike the Soviet Union with atomic weapons before they did the same to us and criticized the UN for not nuking North Korea. Needless to say, York had come a long way from his pacifistic days by the time his health began to rapidly deteriorate.
York touring a US Army post in 1943.
Alvin York spent the last few decades of his life suffering from a number of health issues. He suffered several strokes between 1948 and 1954 and the cumulative effects, combined with a severe case of pneumonia, forced him to be bedridden for much of the rest of his life. His eyesight began to fail. He would be in and out of hospitals until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 76 on September 2nd, 1964.
Alvin York, bedridden, in his later years.
For all his courage, bravado, and tough talk, York rarely spoke of his personal experience in war and never bragged about what he did on October 8th, 1918. “I occupied one space in a fifty mile front,” he once said of his service. “I saw so little it hardly seems worthwhile discussing it.” We respectfully disagree.
Very, very respectfully. Very.