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Sergeant Alvin York

From the author’s personal collection.
From left to right, Congressman Cordell Hull, Sgt. Alvin York, Senator K. D. McKellar and Oregon Senator George Chamberlain, 1919.

By Ray Hill

There was a time when virtually every Tennessean knew the name of Sergeant Alvin Cullum York. A highly decorated veteran of World War I, a genuine hero and the subject of a wildly popular and celebrated movie of his life, Alvin C. York was perhaps the most famous individual from Tennessee to participate in either World War. Sergeant York was a respected and well-loved figure in Tennessee for most of his life.

Alvin York was yet another of those almost mythical figures who really was born in a small log cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee on December 13, 1887. One of eleven children, young Alvin suffered genuine hardship as a child and had only a rudimentary education. The York children helped to work the family farm, while the York boys hunted for game in the nearby woods. Alvin’s father died in 1911 and he worked hard to try and help his mother raise and feed his remaining siblings. Alvin York was apparently a devoted family man and skilled tradesman who worked at various times as a blacksmith, logger and helped to build railroads. Yet young Alvin also evidently had a ferocious liking for alcohol and was not at all averse to saloon brawls, which caused him to be arrested on more than one occasion.

Alvin’s mother was a deeply religious woman who belonged to a church with profoundly pacifistic beliefs. Mary Elizabeth York worked and prayed for her wayward son to reform his hard drinking ways. She was at least partially successful as Alvin did attend church and was an accomplished singer of hymns. Eventually Mary Elizabeth’s prayers were answered and Alvin York experienced a conversion while still in his twenties. Mary Elizabeth’s church, the Church of Christ of the Christian Union, had been formed just after the bloody Civil War and renounced all forms of violence.

Alvin, in keeping with the beliefs of his church, also rejected violence with his conversion and his deeply held beliefs would be a source of conflict with the outbreak of the World War being fought in Europe. York later recounted, “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

Alvin York, as required by the law, duly registered for the draft, which applied to all men in the United States between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one. York himself was twenty-nine at the time. In accordance with his religious beliefs, when completing the draft registration form which inquired, “Do claim exemption from draft?” York answered, “Yes. Don’t want to fight.”

Being a conscientious objector in World War I did not mean one could not be drafted and Alvin York was indeed drafted and reported to Camp Gordon, Georgia for duty. Conscientious objectors at that time were assigned duties, which were not supposed to conflict with their beliefs. York also did not take advantage of two opportunities that would have helped him to leave the military; York’s mother had sent him documents stating that Alvin was the sole support of both her and his brothers and sisters, but he would not sign the papers. Likewise, Alvin refused to put his signature on documents given to him by his pastor to allow him to claim an exemption on religious grounds. York himself later denied that he had ever declared himself to be a conscientious objector.

Alvin York loved his country and still possessed profoundly strong pacifist religious beliefs. While stationed at Camp Gordon, Alvin talked with several superior officers in a genuine desire to resolve the conflicts within him. One officer, Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton, was also a devout Christian and provided scripture supporting the notion that God-fearing men could and should fight. Alvin York then obtained a leave and went home to Tennessee for a visit and returned to Camp Gordon believing that God would care for him and wanted him to fight for his country. And fight he did.

York and his men found themselves under withering machine gun fire from some of the Kaiser’s crack troops near Chatel-Chehery. With orders to take the German positions, York recalled in his book about his war experiences, “They just stopped us dead in our tracks.”

Corporal York was part of a group that included eighteen men commanded by Sergeant Bernard Early to sneak behind the German lines and obliterate the machine gun nests. Initially successful beyond their hopes, the Americans quickly captured German troops who were preparing an attack on American positions. Their elation was short lived as deadly machine gun fire found them and killed six of them. Several others were wounded, including Sergeant Early, leaving young Corporal Alvin C. York in command.

York left his troops under cover, guarding the German prisoners while he stealthily made his way towards the machine gun nests. York later recalled, “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 bush.”

Instead, York met the enemy head on; as the Germans directed machine gun fire at him, York raised his rifle and began to fire his own weapon. York was dueling with more than thirty Germans and they began dropping one by one. The lone soldier, badly outnumbered, demanded the enemy surrender, as York related, “I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to.”

Charged by six German soldiers with bayonets at the ready, York had emptied his rifle and whipped out his pistol and killed every man with his Colt before they could reach him.

The German commander, Lieutenant Paul Vollmer, drew his own pistol and emptied it, trying to kill York. Dismayed when Alvin York was unharmed, his own battalion dropping like flies, Lieutenant Vollmer surrendered to the Tennessean.

Eventually Corporal York and his seven standing soldiers marched one hundred and thirty two German prisoners back to the American lines. The machine guns, still smoking, had finally fallen silent.

Alvin York was rapidly promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Some time later, once an investigation had been conducted and York’s heroism under fire confirmed, the Sergeant was given the Medal of Honor. That highest of honors was pinned to the Tennessean’s breast by General John J. Pershing himself, commanding officer of all the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. York’s bravery did not go unnoticed by America’s allies, as Sergeant York was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor by the French government. York was also awarded the Croce di Guerra al Merito by the King of Italy’s government. All told, Alvin C. York was awarded almost fifty various medals and decorations.

It was an amazing feat, one that York himself explained, “A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

Oddly, virtually nothing about York’s heroism had appeared in the press in the United States. Even the Tennessee press had failed to note Alvin C. York’s achievements. Finally, the story broke in the April 26, 1919 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

York, a simple man of faith, plainspoken in the Tennessee style of the time, was astonished by the greeting he received in New York upon his return from the war. York sat through a lavish banquet in his honor, shook hands with President Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, and got a standing ovation from Congressmen while visiting the House of Representatives.

Once officially discharged by the army, Alvin York went home to Tennessee where the celebrations began anew. York married his sweetheart, Gracie Loretta Williams, with the ceremony performed by none other than Tennessee’s governor, Albert H. Roberts.

Mr. and Mrs. York went to Nashville for a week, where Sergeant York was presented with a special medal for his war service from the State of Tennessee.

York’s new found fame brought him many opportunities to better himself financially, if not actually make him wealthy. Offers flowed from companies anxious for him to endorse their products; movie studios bid on the rights for his story and York was offered handsome sums for lectures. Alvin York refused most every offer, preferring instead to use his fame on behalf of charities or causes he felt benefitted the general public.

The one offer Sergeant York did accept eventually led to profound embarrassment. The Nashville Rotary Club proposed to accept contributions to purchase a four hundred acre farm to be given to Alvin York. York accepted the offer and soon discovered the representations made to him were something less than he had been promised. York found himself in the distressing position of having to borrow money to furnish the farm, buy equipment and the like. Worse still, the Nashville Rotary Club had been purchasing the property in installments and failed to meet their obligations, leaving Sergeant York responsible for further payments. To make matters even worse, York, like most farmers at that time, found it was almost impossible to make money farming in the depression that came after the war.

A proud man, York was humiliated by his increasing debt and the discussion of his finances appearing in the press. Rotary clubs across the country picked up the slack from their brethren in Nashville and York’s debts were soon paid off.

York dreamed of helping Tennessee youngsters and providing educational opportunities for the children of Tennessee’s hills and valleys. Ultimately it was a disastrous experience for Sergeant York, culminating in lawsuits and York found himself ousted as president of the enterprise in 1936. His Alvin C. York Foundation had started with glittering success and many prominent Democrats, not the least of which was Congressman Cordell Hull, lent their names and support. The State of Tennessee, which had promised financial support, found its coffers strapped with the onset of the Great Depression and once again Alvin York found himself hard pressed.

York was a thorough Democrat, announcing, “I’m a Democrat first, last and all the time.” He was a great admirer of Cordell Hull and a personal friend of Tennessee’s senior United States senator, Kenneth D. McKellar. In fact, the old war hero, loyal to the bitter end, would attend the opening of the eighty-three year old McKellar’s last Senate campaign in 1952. York was supportive of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and announced his support for interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. York would visit the White House to call on FDR, along with most of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation and film producer Jesse Lasky. Lasky produced the film adaptation of York’s life starring Hollywood legend Gary Cooper. Sergeant York remains a classic film today and is still entertaining. FDR himself praised the film, which certainly pleased Jesse Lasky.

Sergeant York was not only a critical success, but a highly commercial success as well, which brought Alvin York considerable financial rewards, but it also ignited a fierce dispute with the Internal Revenue Service that drained York’s money once again. York used much of the money he got from the movie to build a bible school.

York’s patriotism was as great as ever when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he tried to volunteer to fight, despite the fact he was fifty-four years old and in poor health. York was given an assignment, promoted to Major in the Army Signal Corps and he crisscrossed the country raising money for the war during bond drives and visiting training camps. York usually paid his own way in his travels and worked hard on behalf of the Red Cross and other war charities.

Following the war, York’s health worsened and he suffered a stroke in 1948, but managed to recover. Increasingly overweight, York suffered additional strokes and was unable to get out of bed for any sustained time after 1954.

Tennessee’s most famous contribution to either World War lived another ten years before passing away in Nashville’s Veteran’s Hospital on September 2, 1964. Sergeant York and his wife, Gracie, had eight children, many of whom were named for famous figures from the pages of American history. Mr. and Mrs. York were the parents of Betsy Ross York, Woodrow Wilson York, Thomas Jefferson York, Sam Houston York, and Andrew Jackson York.

Alvin York was a genuine hero, which is quite something when there are so few today. He was a steadfastly loyal man of convictions, a simple man who lived in and was buffeted by an increasingly complicated world. Yet he remains a true hero to this day.

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