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November 10, 2014

Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children. Alvin’s father was a farmer and a blacksmith. The York sons attended school sparingly because they were needed to work the family farm and hunt small game to feed the family.

When their father died in November 1911, Alvin’s two older brothers had married and relocated away from the family home. Alvin helped his mother raise his younger siblings. To supplement the family income, Alvin first worked in Harriman, Tennessee, in railroad construction and as a logger. York was prone to fighting in saloons and was arrested several times.

Despite his tendency to drink and brawl, Alvin was regular in church attendance and often led the hymn singing. His church had no specific doctrine of pacifism but opposed all forms of violence.

In a lecture later in life, York reported his reaction to the outbreak of World War I: “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

On June 5, 1917, at the age of 29, Alvin York registered for the draft. He had to answer the question, “Do you claim exemption from draft?”

Alvin responded simply by writing “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.”

In World War I, conscientious objector status was not an exemption from military service. Such individuals could still be drafted and were given non-combat duty. In November 1917, while York’s application was being considered, he was drafted and began his army service at Camp Gordon in Georgia.

From the day he registered for the draft until he returned from the war, York kept a diary of his activities. In his diary, York wrote that he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking a discharge from the Army on religious grounds. He also declined to sign papers provided by his mother asserting a claim of exemption as the sole support of his mother and siblings.

York became a soldier in the United States Army. He served in Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Deeply troubled by the conflict between his pacifism and his training for war, he spoke at length with his company commander and his battalion commander. They asked York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. After a ten-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight.

During an attack by his battalion to capture German positions along the Deauville rail-line in the north of France, Alvin York became a hero. He recalled the events of October 8, 1918, in his own Tennessee brogue.

The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. 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.

Under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early, four non-commissioned officers, including recently promoted Corporal York, and thirteen privates were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the nest of machine guns.

The patrol surprised the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large number of German soldiers who were preparing an attack against the United States troops. German machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans and wounding three others, including Sergeant Early. The machine gun fire came from a high ridge. The loss of the nine soldiers put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining.

Ordering his men to remain under cover guarding the prisoners, York moved alone to silence the German machine guns. York recalled:

Those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush…. 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, picking them off one at a time. 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 them or me, and I was giving them the best I had.

During the fight, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him with bayonets fixed. York had fired all the rounds in his rifle, but drew his .45 Colt automatic pistol and shot all six soldiers before they could reach him.

The German First Lieutenant, the officer in command, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while the American soldier was fighting with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, the lieutenant surrendered. York accepted. At the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners, including four officers, back to the American lines. Alvin York had single-handedly taken out thirty-two German machine guns.

Corporal York was promptly promoted to Sergeant York, the name by which he is best remembered. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. A few months later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented by the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. The French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. Italy awarded him its Croce di Guerra al Merito. Alvin York eventually received nearly fifty decorations.

Of his valor, York said to his division commander, “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

Sergeant York’s bravery went unnoticed in the United States press until the publication of the April 26, 1919, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. An article recounted his heroism and sketched out the themes that have dominated Sergeant York’s story ever since. The Tennessee mountaineer with deep religious faith and unusual skill with firearms was a patriotic, plainspoken, unsophisticated, uneducated, and modest man of remarkable courage. The Post concluded, “York seems to do everything correctly by institution.”

Upon his return to the United States, York’s heroism was celebrated in New York City and honored in Washington, D.C. Congress gave him a standing ovation.

He was discharged from the Army and returned to Tennessee. He had been home for barely a week when, on June 7, 1919, York and nineteen-year-old Gracie Loretta Williams were married by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts in Pall Mall.

York refused many offers to profit from his fame. He allowed Nashville-born freelance journalist Sam Cowan to see his diary and submitted to interviews. The resulting 1922 biography focused on York’s Appalachian background. In 1941, the movie Sergeant York was directed by Howard Hawks. Gary Cooper starred in the title role.

York died at the Veterans Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, on September 2, 1964, of a cerebral hemorrhage. After a funeral service in his Jamestown church, Sergeant York was buried at the Wolf River Cemetery in Pall Mall, Tennessee.

On Veterans Day we honor the memory of Alvin York and the many others who have served this country with valor. They have defended our lives, our liberty, and our country We owe them respect and gratitude.

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