SERGEANT YORK – MEDAL OF HONOR
It was an honor to have served in the US Army, although, at the time there were situations in which I was engaged that did not conjure up the word honor. Pulling KP (Kitchen Police), scrubbing pots and pans in a hot greasy mess hall from 3:30 AM to 9:00 PM, pulling police call (picking up cigarette butts) on a Sunday morning because I happened to be in the barracks, or cleaning the latrine (bathroom) at 10:00 PM for an inspection the next morning, or landscaping a parade field with entrenching tools, that’s a folding shovel with a two foot handle.
It is an honor to serve this country, but the real honor I feel from my time in the Army was the people with whom I served. Overall, they were America’s best, and still are. Some of my observations in life are that most people are capable of much more than they do, and that intelligence and education are not necessarily related.
Veterans Day goes back to World War I, and from that war is one of the most vivid examples of a citizen-soldier hero, just doing what had to be done, at the time.
Alvin Cullum York was the third child born to William and Mary York on December 13th, 1887 in a two room cabin in Wolf Valley in the area of Pall Mall, Tennessee. Pall Mall has a few buildings and a name, but not much more. Eight more siblings were born to that family, all raised in that two room house. William York worked the farm, did some blacksmith work, and hunted for food. Alvin, quit school after the third grade, to help his dad. He became a crack shot, and was at home in the woods, which was necessary to keep food on the table. Alvin was the oldest of the children living close to home when William died in November 1911, so it fell to Alvin to help his mother raise his younger brothers and sisters. Alvin went to work in railroad construction, then as a logger and devoted himself to supporting his mother and siblings, but he was also a real rebel, becoming a heavy drinker and bar room brawler. Then in the winter of 1914, a good friend of Alvin’s was beaten to death, in a fight. It shook him, he was afraid that if he didn’t change his ways, he could end up with the same fate, so he attended a revival meeting. Then he joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union, where he met Gracie Williams, who helped turn wild hillbilly Alvin York into a Christian. The Church of Christ preached against violence, drinking, and dancing. Alvin became a believer, teaching Sunday school and singing in the choir.
Then in April 1917, the United States entered World War I. Alvin, afraid that he would be drafted, spoke to his pastor who advised him to seek conscientious objector status. On his draft registration card, in response to a question, “Do you seek exemption from the draft?”, he wrote, “Yes, don’t want to fight”.
His case was denied because his church wasn’t a recognized Christian sect, and conscientious objectors were still being drafted, but assigned to support jobs. Alvin was drafted in November 1917 and assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Basic training was conducted within the units then. Alvin attracted attention because he was a crack shot who did not want to fight. His Company Commander Captain Danforth, and his Battalion Commander Major Buxton, had long conversations with Alvin about Biblical justifications for war. Major Buxton was a devout Christian and cited a variety of Biblical sources to counter Alvin’s concerns. They were able to convince Alvin that war could be justified. He took a 10 day leave to visit home and returned accepting the belief that God meant for him to fight.
The 82nd Infantry Division arrived in France in late May 1918. Alvin’s unit had more training and then participated in the St Mihiel Offensive in September, when Alvin was promoted to Corporal. On October 7th, his unit entered the fighting in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, to relieve units of the 28th Infantry Division. They were ordered to advance the next morning to take Hill 223 and press on to sever the Decauville railroad north of Chatel-Chehery. They took the hill, but moving from the hill they were forced through a triangular shaped valley where they started taking German machinegun fire from the hill sides. The attack was stopped and the Americans were taking heavy casualties. Sergeant Bernard Early was ordered to take 17 men, including Alvin and work around into the German rear to get to those machineguns. They succeeded in slipping through the German lines, and in moving toward the machineguns found a German headquarters unit, which they captured. There were several soldiers and a Major. When the German machine gunners saw what was happening, they turned their guns around and fired on the Americans, killing six and wounding three, including Sergeant Early. That left Alvin in charge. He left the seven able bodied soldiers, under cover, guarding the prisoners, and he turned to deal with the machine guns. The machineguns were only 30 yards away, they couldn’t miss. Alvin wrote in his diary after the action: “Those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful…. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down…. As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head, I just touched it off. 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. Suddenly a German officer and five men jumped out of the trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. I changed to the old automatic (pistol) and just touched them off too. I touched off the sixth man first, then the fifth, then the fourth, then the third and so on. I wanted them to keep coming. I didn’t want the rear ones to see me touching off the front ones. I was afraid they would drop down and pump a volley into me. — and I got hold of the German major, and he told me if I wouldn’t kill any more of them, if he would make them quit firing. So, I told him all right, if he would do it now. So, he blew a little whistle, and they quit shooting and came down and gave up.” The German Machine Gun Commander, First Lieutenant Paul Vollmer took into account his mounting losses and offered to surrender to York – who gleefully accepted.
Corporal Alvin York had killed 28, captured 35 machineguns and 132 German Soldiers, which he and the seven patrol members marched back to his battalion headquarters. Upon arriving, his Regimental Commander is said to have said, “York, I hear you captured the whole damn German army.”, Alvin answered, “No Sir, only 132 of them”.
Alvin was immediately promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was soon upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He was returned to the United States as a celebrity and given a ticker tape parade through New York. He was pestered by filmmakers and advertisers, but he returned home to Tennessee. A week after he returned home on June 7th 1919, the Governor of Tennessee, Albert H. Roberts came to Pall Mall and before a crowd of hundreds, performed the marriage ceremony for Alvin and Gracie.
The Rotary Club of Nashville offered to raise the money to buy the newlyweds a new home, one of the few early gift offers he accepted, but he insisted that the home be in Pall Mall. Alvin and Gracie had 10 children during their life, eight of whom survived infancy. He founded an educational foundation to assist area children to get an education and did occasional speaking tours, primarily to high schools promoting the importance of education.
Alvin was approached by movie makers several times, but refused all until the war in Europe was growing in the late 1930’s. He finally consented to a movie, about him, but with conditions. First, his share of the profits would go to a Bible school he wanted built, second, no cigarette smoking actress could play the role of his wife, and finally, only Gary Cooper could play him. Gary Cooper first refused, because he was 40 at the time and Alvin was 30 when the action happened, but he consented when Alvin personally asked him. “SERGEANT YORK” was released in 1941. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for best actor and the film got one for best editing. It is a four star movie, and was the highest grossing film of 1941. It is 78 years old, black and white, and still a great, great movie.
Alvin suffered a debilitating stroke in 1953, and died of a brain hemorrhage in September 1964. At that time, I was in the 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry in the 82nd Airborne Division. It was determined to be the closest, in lineage, to Alvin’s 328th Infantry, so we sent the burial detail to Pall Mall, Tennessee.
Currently one of the most prestigious “bragging rights awards” in the 82nd Airborne Division, is the annual Sgt Alvin C York Award, which goes to the company with the highest overall marksmanship scores in the division.