Alvin C. York was a rough-and-tumble boy from Pall Mall, a small town in the back woods of Tennessee near the Kentucky border. He was born in a log cabin in 1887, third in a family of 11 children that eked out a living as subsistence farmers and hunters.
The family ancestry was English-Scotch-Irish.
His dad, William Uriah York, was a deserter from Company A of the 11th Michigan Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, but by the time Alvin was born he worked as a local blacksmith, while the rest of the family toiled at subsistent farming and hunting to put meat on the table.
The hunting helped make Alvin a crack shot.
Alvin was 24 when his dad died, so it was up to him to support the family as he was the eldest of the children still living there.
The hard-scrabble life and roaming the backwoods made Alvin a tough guy, so it wasn’t surprising that he’d let off steam brawling in local saloons — usually after drinking too much.
But then after hearing an inspiring sermon at church, he saw the light and changed his ways. He became a fundamentalist Christian, quit drinking, swore off fighting and studied Scripture.
When World War I was raging, with the U.S. watching on the sidelines, he knew that there was a good chance America would join in and the draft board would call his number.
In 1917, that’s exactly what happened.
Appearing before the draft board, he told them he was a pacifist and wouldn’t fight, but he’d serve as a conscientious objector.
Here’s how Time magazine described what happened next:
“He still grappled with his pacifism, which he discussed with two very religious superior officers, who worked to convince him that one could both follow the Bible and kill for one’s nation. But as word spread about York’s pacifist tendencies, other soldiers began to ostracize and openly ridicule him.”
In the Howard Hawks-directed 1941 movie “Sergeant York,” Gary Cooper, starring as York, said, “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War’s killin’, and the book’s agin’ killin’! So war is agin’ the book!”
After his heroics near the village of Chantel-Chéhéry, the critics went silent.
Sgt. York’s attitude changed after he saw comrades-in-arms wounded and killed, concluding that “he must fight and kill in order to prevent further bloodshed among his fellow American soldiers.”
Taking his wishes into account, his conscientious objector status was duly denied and he was sent to boot camp and then shipped off to the Western Front in France as one more body with a rifle in the 82nd Infantry Division.
Pvt. York was not happy about the assignment, but that’s how things were.
He arrived in France in May and by September he was promoted to corporal and given command of his own squad.
The war would last only two more months.
The 82nd Infantry was sent to the area of Verdun and joined the Meuse-Argonne Offensive — the final offensive of the “War to end all Wars.”
On Oct. 8, 1918, York’s battalion was ordered to take Hill 223 north of Chantel-Chéhéry. York and 16 others headed out.
They were to infiltrate the German lines to take out the machine guns, but they walked into a trap.
“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart,” York recalled. “They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from …
“And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out … And there we were, lying down, about halfway across (the valley) and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”
Then York’s group worked their way around the back of the Germans — who were preparing an attack of their own — and captured several Germans.
While the prisoners were being guarded, enemy machine guns suddenly sprayed the area, killing six Americans and wounding three more. Cpl. York was then in charge of the remaining seven.
He described his actions that day in a diary he kept and later used as the basis for the 1928 autobiography, “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary,” co-written by York and Thomas John Skeyhill, and also for the movie “Sergeant York.”
“The tone of his writing and sentiment he conveys is one that likely resonates with many veterans, past and present,” one commentary noted. “York’s words on war and combat are a mixture of enthusiastic excitement, tinged with regret over the act of killing, even to save oneself.”
Back to the action:
York left the others in charge of the prisoners and the wounded as he alone sneaked around behind the German machine gun and opened fire — killing several before his rifle ran out of ammo.
Then he faced an enemy bayonet charge of six more. Quickly, he pulled out his pistol and killed all of them.
Altogether, he killed 25 German soldiers that day.
German Lt. Paul Vollmer in charge of the machine gun position emptied his pistol at York but all the bullets missed.
The officer then quickly offered to surrender — along with all of his men.
York accepted the offer and the Germans laid down their arms.
Then Cpl. York and his small patrol marched 132 German soldiers back to American lines and into the history books.
He wrote down what happened that day in his diary that in 1928 resulted in an autobiography co-written with Thomas John Skeyhill, “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary” that later became the basis for the movie.
One book review said, “The tone of his writing and sentiment he conveys is one that likely resonates with many veterans, past and present. York’s words on war and combat are a mixture of enthusiastic excitement, tinged with regret over the act of killing, even to save oneself.”
York was immediately promoted to sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
World War I ended on Armistice Day — Nov. 11, 1918 — and Sgt. York came home an international war hero.
When he returned, he married his sweetheart, Gracie Loretta Williams, on June 7, 1919. The wedding ceremony was performed by Tennessee Gov. Albert H. Roberts.
Businessmen in Tennessee bought the bottom-land that York always wanted, and the hero from Tennessee dived into a number of projects that kept him busy the rest of his life — including raising a family of eight children.
York turned down many lucrative offers, including $30,000 ($510,000 today) to appear in vaudeville. He decided he’d rather go back to the rural life in Tennessee that he’d known before the war.
But he remained busy the rest of his life.
One of his projects was establishing a charitable foundation promoting opportunities for kids in rural Tennessee.
During the 1930s and ’40s, York worked as a project superintendent for the Civilian Conservation Corps and managed the construction of the Byrd Lake Reservoir at Cumberland Mountain State Park — later becoming the park’s superintendent.
Then just before the U.S. entered World War II, the movie “Sergeant York” hit the big screen.
It was a smashing hit — picking up 11 Academy Award Oscar nominations and winning two: Best Actor for Gary Cooper and Best Editing for William Holmes.
York insisted Gary Cooper play the lead roll — or he wouldn’t agree to the movie. At the time, Cooper was almost 40 and had to play a 30-year-old.
In his later years, health problems confined Alvin York to bed.
He died in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964, and is buried next to Gracie at Wolf River Cemetery in his hometown of Pall Mall.
Sgt. York was a true American hero — his memory forever cherished.
“The fear of God makes a hero,” he would say. “The fear of man makes a coward…
“When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time. I had orders to report to Brig. Gen. Lindsey, and he said to me, ‘Well York, I hear you’ve captured the whole damned German army,’ and I told him I only had 132 …”
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“It was not man-power but it was divine power that saved me…before I went to war I prayed to God and He done gave me my assurance that so long as I believed in Him not one hair of my head would be harmed; and even in front of them-there machine guns He knowed I believed in Him.”
— Sgt. Alvin C. York
On the movie set…
“Alvin C. York himself was on the set for a few days during filming. When one of the crew members tactlessly asked him how many ‘Jerries’ he had killed, York started sobbing so vehemently he threw up. The crew member was nearly fired, but the next day, York demanded that he keep his job.”
Cooper’s Oscar acceptance…
“Gary Cooper’s acceptance speech typified so many of the actor’s performances when he said ‘It was Sergeant Alvin C. York who won this award; Shucks, I’ve been in this business sixteen years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these things. That’s all I can say! Funny, when I was dreaming, I always made a good speech.’ As he left the stage, he forgot the Oscar on the podium.”
Just before Pearl Harbor…
“Director Howard Hawks used the movie to make an unapologetic plea for the United States to get involved in World War II. In the film, Alvin York enters the war as a pacifist and conscientious objector candidate and becomes a battle hero when confronted by the actions of a despicable enemy.”
— James Barber, Military.com
Faith and good works…
Saturday Evening Post published Sgt. York’s story after he returned home, and Congress gave him a standing ovation. He was flooded with movie offers and at first turned them all down. He eventually allowed Warner Bros. to make the film, and he used his earnings from the movie to finance a bible school — today a high school in Jamestown, Tenn., called the Alvin C. York Institute, with an enrollment of about 600 students.
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their History Popcorn stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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