A Brief History
On October 8, 1918, United States Corporal Alvin C. York killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 in France’s Argonne Forest during World War I making York one of America’s most decorated soldiers of the war.
Alvin York was born in a log cabin in December 1887. As a young Christian man, he hoped to avoid serving in World War I as a conscientious objector. Nevertheless, the U.S. draft did not allow such exemptions at that time. Early on in his service, York had a crisis of conscience between being a pacifist and a soldier in the 82nd Infantry Regiment. To alleviate York’s concerns, his commanding officer cited various Biblical passages that seemed to justify violence under certain circumstances. With that, York subsequently fought with greater enthusiasm.
Of all the days of his service, October 8, 1918 would prove the most famous as it was on that day that his actions earned him the Medal of Honor. York kept a diary of his combat career and so we shall let him tell us in his words what happened on that fateful day: “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.” Despite the desperate situation, York showed almost unparalleled bravery for an American during the war. As he explains, “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.”
In the shootout, York faced overwhelming odds. York was part of a force of only 18 U.S. soldiers sent to infiltrate behind German lines in the hopes of neutralizing German machine guns. Early on in the mission, the group of Americans lost six killed and three wounded resulting in York taking over command of the remaining seven in ferocious fighting. When six German soldiers with bayonets charged him, he fired all the bullets left in his rifle before turning to his pistol to defend himself. He managed to shoot all six of the Germans. In the end of the fierce firefight, 28 Germans had been killed by York, while York and his surviving men captured another 132 German prisoners of war.
York went on to establish the Alvin C. York Foundation to increase educational opportunities in his homeland of Tennessee. While in his 50s, he also served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II and raised money for the Red Cross. He ultimately attained the rank of Colonel in the Tennessee State Guard, although most know him as Sergeant York for his highest rank at the end of World War I. In addition to the Medal of Honor, York’s other military decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the World War I Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal all from the U.S.A. He also received the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre from France and even medals from Italy and Montenegro.
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A major film about his World War I heroism debuted in 1941 called Sergeant York (Two-Disc Special Edition) starring Gary Cooper as York. The film has been overwhelmingly positively received by critics. Cooper won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance, while the film was the year’s highest grossing film. We also encourage our readers to pick up a copy of York’s diary. His daily accounts of his experiences are still worthwhile to read in our own era in which war remains ever present in our news headlines. You can also read his biography, Sgt. York: His Life, Legend & Legacy: The Remarkable Untold Story of Sgt. Alvin C. York.