Alvin Cullum York was one of the greatest war heroes that America has ever produced.
His faith in God, his modest and honorable character, and his sacrifice on behalf of his country should continue to command the utmost respect and admiration from most Americans.
And his behavior should serve as a model for future generations of Americans.
"The war’s biggest hero!"
The New York Times
"The greatest civilian soldier of WW1".
General John J. Pershing, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.
Following his death in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson issued a statement calling him,
"A symbol of American courage and sacrifice who epitomized the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices in behalf of freedom".
A Very Unlikely Hero
Few would have guessed at his humble birth in a one-room cabin on December 13, 1887 that Alvin Cullum York would later receive such accolades.
Born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, Alvin York was the third of eleven children and was raised on a small farm.
The son of a poor blacksmith, York left school after third grade, and admitted that in his youth he was,
"Wild and bad for five or six years. I used to drink a lot of moonshine. I used to gamble my wages away week after week. I used to stay out late at night. I had a powerful lot of fist fights. But I knew all the time I was going along this kind of life, deep down in my heart, that I was doing things that were not right".
A Change Of Heart
One day, York’s mother, who had continually pleaded with her son to change his ways, asked him a simple question.
"Alvin, when are you going to be a man like your father and your grandfathers?".
And York wrote.
"I promised my mother that night I would never drink again; I would never smoke or chew again; I would never gamble again; I would never cuss or fight again. And I have never drunk any whiskey, I have never touched cards, I have never smoked or chewed, and I have never fought or rough-housed since that night".
York Is Saved By Jesus Christ
Equally or event more important in changing the course of Alvin York’s life was an event that happened on New Year’s Day, 1915.
York wrote later in life that it was on this day that he was "saved" by the preaching of a local evangelist.
York embraced Jesus Christ and quickly rose to become the second elder of his church.
And he would later give full credit to his faith in God and Jesus Christ for his exploits in battle and his safe return from the war.
Alvin York Feared Joining The Army
In June 1917, at age 29, Alvin York received his notice to register for the draft, and on that same day he started a diary which he kept faithfully throughout the war.
Please make no mistake, and understand, that being called to take up arms in war caused a major inner conflict for York.
His ancestors had served in war since the American Revolution and York felt that,
"My ancestors would want me to do whatever my country demanded of me, but if I went away to war and fought and killed, according to my reading of the Bible, I weren’t a good Christian".
York Asked For Exemption From Service
York finally decided that God’s law must take precedent over his family’s tradition and also the laws of man.
And when York registered for the draft he wrote simply on the form,
"I don’t want to fight".
He attempted to be exempted because his church forbade its members to kill.
But his exemption was denied on the grounds that his church did not expressly prohibit killing during war.
York’s crisis of conscience was not settled until, according to York,
"I prayed and prayed. I prayed two whole days and a night out on the mountainside".
And ultimately, York decided that God had given him the go-ahead to "answer the call of my country".
Arriving In France
York arrived in France on May 21, 1918 and his unit first saw major action during the St. Mihiel drive in September 1918.
By this time York had been promoted to the rank of corporal and given command of a squad.
The drive was a success and the American Army moved on to the Argonne Forest for the last major drive of World War I.
Seventeen Men That Were Hugely Outnumbered
On October 8, 1918 in the Argonne Forest York’s battalion was charged with advancing across a valley and taking the two hills on the far side.
The Germans, however, were dug into the hills with machine gun emplacements and had a complete view of the valley.
According to York:
"It was kind of a triangular shaped valley. So you see we were getting it from the front and both flanks. Well, the first and second waves got about halfway across the valley and then were held up by machine gun fire from the three sides. It was awful. Our losses were very heavy".
York and the other squad commanders assigned to the left flank of the advance quickly realized that the hills would be impossible to take from the front without significant reinforcements, because the combined forces of the squads, including York’s, was only seventeen men.
They therefore decided to attempt a sneak attack by advancing around the enemy’s flank and attacking from the rear.
German Prisoners And Machine Gun Fire
Upon advancing undetected around the enemy’s flank and approaching from the rear the unit stumbled across the headquarters of the machine gun regiment.
The Germans were quietly eating breakfast at the time and were completely taken by surprise.
All but one immediately surrendered, and he fired at York.
York Returned fire and killed him with one shot.
By this time the German machine gunners on the hill had been alerted to the Americans’ presence.
According to York:
"There were about thirty of them. They were commanding us from a hillside less than 30 yards away. They couldn’t miss. And they didn’t!".
The German machine guns took out nine men, including an officer, leaving Corporal York in charge, and it was at this point that York made history.
Bravery Deserving Of The Medal Of Honor
As the initial blast of machine gun fire hit the Americans, York was standing out in the open, and he later wrote in his diary:
"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 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".
The Germans Surrender
By this time a German major who had already been captured had seen enough and he told York in English.
"If you don’t shoot any more I’ll make them surrender".
All but one of the Germans came down from the hills and the one German that didn’t surrender managed to throw a small hand grenade, before York killed him.
A Refusal Of Fame And Fortune
After returning Stateside, York was acclaimed a hero, and was showered with offers of fame and fortune, including a nationwide tour, endorsements, and movie deals.
But such was not in York’s character, who claimed,
"I felt that to take money like that would be commercializing my uniform and soldiering. It was very nice. But I sure wanted to get back to my people where I belonged, and the little old mother and the little mountain girl who were waiting. And I wanted to be in the mountains again and get out with hounds, and tree a coon or knock over a red fox. And in the midst of the crowds and the dinners and receptions I couldn’t help thinking of these things".
York made his way to the same mountainside where he had prayed to God two years earlier for guidance, and there thanked God for bringing him home safely from the war.
Improvements For His County
Throughout the 1920s York went on speaking tours and used his celebrity status to bring about improvements to roads, unemployment and education in his home county.
And in 1927, York established the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute for the boys and girls of the mountains who had few educational opportunities.
But by 1937, York became unable to operate the school and it became a special part of the Tennessee public school system.
The All American Hero
York’s war exploit typified that of the nineteenth century American heroes.
He appeared larger than life and was most often compared to three peculiarly American icons: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Abraham Lincoln.
So not unsurprisingly, in 1941, the story of Alvin York was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper, who won an Academy Award for the role.
Alvin York acted as an adviser to the film, but in 1952 he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and became bedridden.
The US Government Repays It Debt
By 1961, Alvin York, one of America’s greatest military heroes, was partially paralyzed, almost completely blind, and virtually penniless.
The American government, through the Internal Revenue Service, repaid its debt to York for being a war hero, by suing him for back taxes.
The IRS claimed that York’s royalties from the movie, most of which had gone to charity, should be taxed at a higher rate than York had used.
In all, the IRS claimed York owed the U.S. government $85,442, plus an additional $87,155 in interest, but it quickly became apparent that all of York’s assets totaled together did not equal the $172,597 being sought.
The American Public Came To The Rescue
The IRS finally offered to settle for $25,000 and when the American public was alerted to Sergeant York’s plight, individuals donated over $50,000 which covered the debt with some money left over for a trust fund.
Alvin York Returns To His Maker
Alvin York lived on for three more years and on September 2, 1964, at the age of 76 he passed away.
His grave, near his home and within sight of the very church where he had been converted in 1915, is marked with a stone monument on which two books are carved, a Bible and a textbook.
His funeral was attended by Governor Frank G. Clement and General Matthew Ridgway as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s official representative and he was survived by seven children and his widow.
Nickname – "Sergeant York"
Born – December 13, 1887 Pall Mall, Tennessee
Died – September 2, 1964 (aged 76) Nashville, Tennessee
Place of burial Wolf River Cemetery Pall Mall
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Medal of Honor
Legion of Honor (France)
Croix de Guerre (French)
Croce di Guerra al Merito (Italian)
War Medal Montenegro