The greatest hero of World War I began life in a two-room log cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the third of eleven children.  He attended school for 9 months and spent the rest of his childhood helping his family scratch out a living in the backwoods and waters of his homeland.

His name was Alvin Cullum York.  Folks around Pall Mall knew him as one of the best marksmen ever to come out of the woods of Tennessee…and also one of Fentress County’s biggest hell-raisers.  Whether this was because his father died in 1911, leaving Alvin with the burden of seven younger siblings and a widowed ma to provide for, or just a plain hereditary devilish streak, folks couldn’t determine.  One thing was certain: Alvin never darkened a church door, but his drinkin’, gamblin’ presence was regular at sleazy border saloons.  And most everyone in Pall Mall agreed that that young Alvin C. York would never amount to anything.

But Alvin’s life turned around one drunken night in 1914 when a saloon disagreement turned violent, and his best friend, Everett Delk, was killed.  It was a cruel wake-up call.  That same year, prompted by the death of his friend, Alvin attended a revival hosted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union.  Finally, he realized that it was time to change his ways.  Committing his heart and life to God, Alvin was a changed man.  He became a song leader and Sunday School teacher at the local Church of Christ in Christian Union, and there met a young woman named Gracie Williams.

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and every state, city and town in America was effected by the draft.  York received his notice six months before his 30th birthday.

The struggle that raged inside him was between his faith and that draft notice.  The Bible he had learned to love forbade fighting, did it not?  “My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said, “If it were of this world, my servants would fight.”  It was wrong to kill, to murder, and that was exactly what war was.  It was murder, on a massive scale.  Alvin York knew that the ability he had with a gun was a rare thing, but he had given up fighting.  He applied for exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector.  His request was not approved, either at the local or state level, and York was forced to go to war. 

Having never traversed more than fifty miles from his home or shot with any gun besides an old-fashioned muzzleloading rifle, York was in for a huge learning curve.

At training camp, Alvin’s commanding officers were amazed at his ability with a gun, watching York shoot with perfect accuracy at targets 200, 300 and 500 yards away.  But when asked to practice shooting at human-shaped targets, he said, “Sir, I am doing wrong. Practicing to kill people is against my religion.”

Weeks passed, and as Alvin listened to the counsel of two of his commanders, Major G. Edward Buxton and Captain Edward Danforth, he finally began to understand that God asks us not only to serve Him spiritually but to submit to our government authorities, and to protect the innocent.  A member of the United States Army, Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division, Corporal Alvin C. York was shipped overseas.  It was on October 8, 1918, at the battle of the Argonne Forest, that York earned himself fame as America’s greatest hero during the First World War.

On that day York and sixteen other men, under command of Sergeant Bernard Early, were commissioned to secure Germany’s Decauville rail-line.  York recalled,

“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.”

The group of eighteen men went behind enemy lines with the mission of taking out this German machine gun nest.  As Sergeant Early captured a large group of German soldiers, enemy fire opened on the Americans from a hill overlooking them.  York was commanded to silence the machine guns.

“[T]hose 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… 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.”

When the smoke had cleared, 9 Americans had captured 132 German soldiers.  25 Germans were dead.  35 machine guns were silenced.  York was awarded the French Medaille Militaire and Coix de Guerre, the Itailian Groce de Guerra, and the American Medal of Honor.  His homeland was abuzz with the excitement of York’s exploits, and when the newly-appointed Sergeant arrived in New York City in 1919 he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. 

His faith had seen him through, his commitment to God’s Word and his search for truth had not been in vain.  He knew that he owed everything to God.  “A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do,” he told his commander General Duncan in 1919.

Marshall Ferdinand Foch told York that, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”

Immediately after returning home, Hollywood, Broadway and numerous advertisement firms were eager to make a fortune from York’s newfound fame.  But rather than subscribing to the get-rich-quick offers surrounding him, Alvin returned home to Tennessee, his family, and Gracie, as soon as he could.  “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he said simply.

Alvin wanted to use his celebrity for good, and his dream was to provide education for the mountain children of Tennessee.  On June 7, 1919, he married his sweetheart, Gracie Williams.  The couple went on to have 7 children.  York founded the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute in Jamestown, Tennessee.  The Institute stands today as a nationally recognized high school with the highest graduation percentage in the state.  York also started a Bible School with proceeds from the Hollywood film Sergeant York, made about his life in 1941 and featuring Gary Cooper’s Academy Award-winning performance as Alvin.

Alvin York passed away on September 2, 1964, and was buried with military honors in the Pall Mall cemetary.  He told interviewers that he wanted to be remembered for his work in promoting public education to the underprivileged children in his community.  This man, who had received less than a year of formal schooling as a child, was able to see each of his seven children graduate with high school diplomas from the school he started.  One even went on to graduate college.

The exploits of Sergeant Alvin C. York, humble mountain sharpshooter and committed Christian, will endure as long as America’s stories are told.  His acts of bravery in the Argonne Forest are legendary, but even more impressive are the quieter acts of a courageous heart which York displayed.  He was a man brave enough to listen to his conscience, brave enough to consider the counsel of others, brave enough to trust, first and foremost, in the word of God.  This is true heroism.

Resources:

  1. “The Legends and Traditions of the Great War: Sergeant Alvin York” http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
  2. Trenches on the Web -“Bio: Sergeant Alvin C. York” http://www.worldwar1.com/biocyrk.htm
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