A TRIBUTE TO SARGEANT ALVIN C. YORK
A TRIBUTE TO SARGEANT ALVIN C. YORK
Alvin Cullum York ( December 13, 1887 – September 2, 1964 ) was one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.
Scenes from the Gary Cooper movie about the life story of Alvin. C. York.
World War I
York enlisted in the United States Army and 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, Captain Edward Courtney Bullock Danforth (1894–1973) of Augusta, Georgia and his battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton (1880–1949) of Providence, Rhode Island, a devout Christian himself. Citing Biblical passages about violence ("He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one." "Render unto Caesar..." "...if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight."), they forced York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. Granted a 10-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe, as committed to his new mission as he had been to pacifism.
During an attack by his battalion to secure German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, France, on October 8, 1918, York's actions earned him the Medal of Honor. He 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.
Under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early, four non-commissioned officers and thirteen privates, including recently promoted Cpl. York, were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the machine guns. The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. Early's men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans: Corp. Murray Savage, and Pvts. Maryan E. Dymowski, Ralph E. Weiler, Fred Waring, William Wins and Walter E. Swanson, and wounding three others, Sgt. Early, Corp. William S. Cutting (aka Otis B. Merrithew), and Pvt. Mario Muzzi. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining U.S. soldiers, Pvts. Joseph Kornacki, Percy Beardsley, Feodor Sok, Thomas G. Johnson, Michael A. Saccina, Patrick Donohue, and George W. Wills. As his men remained under cover, and guarded the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns. York recalled:
And 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… 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.
Alvin Cullum York December 13, 1887(1887-12-13) – September 2, 1964(1964-09-02)
Request for conscientious objector status from Alvin C. York.
York at the hill where his actions earned him the Medal of Honor, three months after the end of World War I, February 7, 1919.
During the assault, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him with fixed bayonets. York had fired all the rounds in his rifle, but drew his pistol and shot all six of the soldiers before they could reach him.
German First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted. By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.
York was promptly promoted to sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. A few months later, following a thorough investigation, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented to York 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 and Montenegro its War Medal. He eventually received nearly 50 decorations. His Medal of Honor citation reads:
After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.
Of his deeds, York said to his division commander, General George B. Duncan, in 1919: "A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do."
Homecoming and notoriety
York's heroism went unnoticed in the United States press, even in Tennessee, until the publication of the April 26, 1919 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which had a circulation in excess of 2 million. In an article titled "The Second Elder Gives Battle", journalist George Patullo, who had learned of York's story while touring battlefields earlier in the year, laid out the themes that have dominated York's story ever since: the mountaineer, his religious faith and skill with firearms, patriotic, plainspoken and unsophisticated, an uneducated man who "seems to do everything correctly by intuition." In response, the Tennessee Society, a group of Tennesseans living in New York City, arranged celebrations to greet York upon his return to the United States, including a 5-day furlough to allow for visits to New York City and Washington, D.C. York arrived in Hoboken, N.J. on May 22, stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, and attended a formal banquet in his honor. He toured the subway system in a special car before continuing to Washington, where the House of Representatives gave him a standing ovation and he met Secretary of War Baker and the President's secretary Joe Tumulty, as President Wilson was still in Paris.
York proceeded to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he was discharged from the service, and then to Tennessee for more celebrations. He had been home for barely a week when, on June 7, 1919, York and Gracie Loretta Williams (February 7, 1900 - September 27, 1984) were married by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts in Pall Mall. More celebrations followed the wedding, including a week-long trip to Nashville where York accepted a special medal awarded by the state.
York refused many offers to profit from his fame, including thousands of dollars offered for appearances, newspaper articles, and movie rights to his life story. Companies wanted him to appear in advertisements or to pose with their products. Instead he lent his name to various charitable and civic causes. To support economic development, he campaigned to get Tennessee to build a road to service his native region, succeeding when a highway through the mountains was completed in the mid-1920s and named Alvin C. York Highway. The Nashville Rotary organized the purchase by public subscription of a 400-acre (1.6 km2) farm, the one gift that York accepted. It proved not to be the fully equipped farm he was promised, and he had to borrow money to stock it and then lost money in the farming depression that followed the war. Then the Rotary, which was purchasing the property in installments, failed to make the payments, leaving York to pay himself and then in 1921 to ask for help, resulting in an extended discussion of his finances in the press, some of it sharply critical. Debt in itself was a trial: "I could get used to most any kind of hardship, but I'm not fitted for the hardship of owing money." Only an appeal to Rotary Clubs nationwide and an account of York's plight in the New York World brought in the required contributions by Christmas 1921.
Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Sargeant Alvin C. York.
In the 1920s, York formed the Alvin C. York Foundation with the mission of increasing education opportunities in his region of Tennessee. Board members included the area's congressman, Cordell Hull, who later became Secretary of State under FDR, Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo, and Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts. Plans called for a non-sectarian institution providing vocational training to be called the York Agricultural Institute. York concentrated on fund-raising, though he disappointed audiences who wanted to hear about the Argonne when he instead explained that "I occupied one space in a fifty mile front. I saw so little it hardly seems worthwhile discussing it. I'm trying to forget the war in the interest of the mountain boys and girls that I grew up among." He fought first to win financial support from the state and county, then battled local leaders about the school's location. Refusing to compromise, he resigned and developed plans for a rival York Industrial School. After a series of lawsuits he gained control of the original institution and was its President when it opened in December 1929. As the Great Depression deepened, the state government failed to provide promised funds, and York mortgaged his farm to fund bus transportation for students. Even after he was ousted as President in 1936 by political and bureaucratic rivals, he continued to donate money.
Twice in the 1920s, York cooperated with journalists in telling his life story. York 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, describing his upbringing among the "purest Anglo-Saxons to be found today," emphasizing popular stereotypes without bringing the man to life. A few years later, York contacted a publisher about an edition of his war diary, but the publisher wanted additional material to flesh out the story. Then Tom Skeyhill, an Australian-born veteran of the Gallipoli campaign, visited York in Tennessee and the two became friends. On York's behalf, Skeyhill wrote an "autobiography" in the first person and was credited as the editor of Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary. With a preface by Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War in World War I, it presented a one-dimensional York supplemented with tales of life in the Tennessee mountains. Reviews noted that York only promoted his life story in the interest of funding educational programs: "Perhaps York's bearing after his famous exploit in the Argonne best reveals his native greatness....He will not exploit himself except for his own people. All of which gives his book an appeal beyond its contents."
The mountaineer myth that Cowan and Skeyhill promoted reflected York's own beliefs. In a speech at the 1939 New York World's Fair, he said:
We, the descendants of the pioneer long hunters of the mountains, have been called Scotch-Irish and pure Anglo-Saxon, and that is complimentary, I reckon. But we want the world to know that we are Americans. The spiritual environment and our religious life in the mountains have made our spirit wholly American, and that true pioneer American spirit still exists in the Tennessee mountains.
Even today, I want you all to know, with all the clamor of the world and its evil attractions, you still find in the little humble log cabins in the Tennessee mountains that old-fashioned family altar of prayer–the same that they used to have in grandma's and grandpa's day–which is the true spirit of the long hunters.
We in the Tennessee mountains are not transplanted Europeans; every fiber in our body and every emotion in our hearts is American.
For many years, York employed a secretary, Arthur S. Bushing, who wrote the lectures and speeches York delivered. Bushing prepared York's correspondence as well. Like the works of Cowan and Skeyhill, words commonly ascribed to York, though doubtless representing his thinking, were often composed by professional writers.
York had refused several times to authorize a film version of his life story. Finally, in 1940, as York was looking to finance an interdenominational Bible school, he yielded to a persistent Hollywood producer and negotiated the contract himself. In 1941, the movie Sergeant York directed by Howard Hawks with Gary Cooper in the title role told about his life and Medal of Honor action. The screenplay included much fictitious material though it was based on York's Diary. The marketing of the film included a visit by York to the White House where FDR praised the film. Some of the response to the film divided along political lines, with advocates of preparedness and aid to Great Britain enthusiastic ("Hollywood's first solid contribution to the national defense," said Time) and isolationists calling it "propaganda" for the administration. It received 11 Oscar nominations and won two, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for Cooper. It was the highest-grossing picture of 1941. York's earnings from the film, about $150,000 in the first 2 years as well as later royalties, resulted in a decade-long battle with the Internal Revenue Service. York eventually built part of his planned Bible school, which hosted 100 students until the late 1950s.
During World War II, York first registered for the draft and then received a special commission as a major. He failed a physical examination due to his weight and evidence of arthritis and was denied front line service. Instead he toured training camps and participated in bond drives in support of the war effort, usually paying his own travel expenses. Gen. Matthew Ridgway later recalled that York "created in the minds of farm boys and clerks...the conviction that an aggressive soldier, well trained and well armed, can fight his way out of any situation." He raised funds for war-related charities, including the Red Cross. He served on his county draft board, and when literacy requirements forced the rejection of large numbers of Fentress County men, he offered to lead a battalion of illiterates himself, saying they were "crack shots." Despite his official rank, newspapers continued to refer to him as "Sgt. York." York also served during the war as a Colonel with the Seventh Infantry of the Tennessee State Guard.
York's political views continued to evolve. After abandoning his pacifism, he believed in the morality of America’s intervention in World War I. By the mid-1930s, he looked backed more critically: "I can't see that we did any good. There’s as much trouble now as there was when we were over there. I think the slogan 'A war to end war.' is all wrong." He fully endorsed American preparedness, but showed sympathy for isolationism in saying he would fight only if war came to America. A consistent Democrat – "I'm a Democrat first, last, and all the time," he said—in January 1941 he praised FDR's support for Great Britain and in an address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day of that year attacked isolationists and said veterans understood that "liberty and freedom are so very precious that you do not fight and win them once and stop." They are "prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!" At times he was blunt: "I think any man who talks against the interests of his own country ought to be arrested and put in jail, not excepting senators and colonels." Everyone knew the colonel in question was Charles Lindbergh. During World War II he urged the internment of aliens, particularly the Japanese who "whether native or foreign born, all look alike and we can't take any chances." In the late 1940s he called for toughness in dealing with Russia and did not hesitate to recommend using the atomic bomb in a first strike: "If they can't find anyone else to push the button, I will." He questioned the failure of United Nations forces to use the atomic bomb in Korea. In the 1960s he criticized Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's plans to reduce the ranks of the National Guard and reserves: “Nothing would please Krushchev better.”
York suffered from health problems throughout his life. He had gall bladder surgery in the 1920s and suffered from pneumonia in 1942. Described in 1919 as a "red-haired giant with the ruddy complexion of the outdoors" and "standing more than 6 feet...and tipping the beam at more than 200 pounds," by 1945 he weighed 250 pounds and in 1948 he had a stroke. More strokes and another case of pneumonia followed, and he was confined to bed from 1954, further handicapped by failing eyesight. He was hospitalized several times during his last two years. 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, with Gen. Matthew Ridgway representing President Lyndon Johnson, York was buried at the Wolf River Cemetery in Pall Mall. His funeral sermon was delivered by Richard G. Humble, General Superintendent of the Churches of Christ in Christian Union. Humble also preached Mrs. York's funeral in 1984.
York and his wife Grace had eight children, six sons and two daughters, most named after American historical figures: Alvin Cullum, Jr. (1921–83), George Edward Buxton (1923- ), Woodrow Wilson (1925- ), Sam Houston (1928–29), Andrew Jackson (1930- ), Betsy Ross (1933- ), Mary Alice (1935- ), Thomas Jefferson (1938–72).
York's son, Thomas Jefferson York, was killed in the line of duty on May 7, 1972, while serving as a constable in Tennessee.