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  • James Houser

October 8, 1918 - The Legend of Sergeant York

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

October 8, 1918. The American Expeditionary Force is slugging its way north through the Argonne Forest in France, and World War I is almost over. In the midst of the hellstorm that is the Western Front, a conscript corporal from the mountains of Tennessee is about to make his mark on the American consciousness. His name is Alvin York. His story, though, is more complex than it seems – and says a lot about the long tradition of the American war hero.


Alvin Cullum York was born on December 13, 1887, the third of William Uriah and Mary Elizabeth York's eleven children. The family lived in Fentress County, high in the Cumberland Mountains of east-central Tennessee. It wasn’t just off the beaten path - it was off almost any path. Appalachia for a long time was home to a strain of conservative populism that was fiercely anti-slavery and anti-Confederate, but pro-tradition and deeply religious. Despite being a Southerner, Alvin York’s ancestors had fought in the Union Army, not the Confederate. Alvin York carried a mixed cultural and political heritage that is all but forgotten in modern America: the “hillbillies” of the late 19th-early 20th Century were among the most economically progressive and socially conservative groups of their day.


York’s early years fit in with this strange dichotomy. They lived a hard life scratched from the earth. William York worked as a blacksmith, the entire family ate food grown on their own land, and their clothes were all handmade. York had little formal education, since his family needed him to work the farm. Young Alvin’s family was dirt-poor; his father died in 1911, when he was 24, and he helped take up the responsibility of raising his younger siblings. He took up work in construction and logging.


Despite being a hard worker, committed to his family, and a crack shot with a rifle, York had fallen to one of the great vices of the Appalachian working man: he had become a violent alcoholic. His off hours were spent in violent brawls in the local saloons, run-ins with the law, and frankly suicidal levels of alcohol consumption. It would not have been at all uncommon for York to have died in one of these incidents; his own best friend was killed in one of the many saloon fights.


But York did not go down that path. The one constant in his life, thanks to his fiercely religious mother, was the local church – again, a piece of that complicated Appalachian heritage. York never missed a sermon and often led the choir, despite his well-earned reputation as a hard-drinking ruffian. After a revival in 1914, though, York had a profound religious experience sometime in early 1915. Religion’s place in America is much-changed today from what it once was, and many fail to understand the appeal. The rebirthing creed of Christianity is a route for many to discard their previous lives and mistakes, and York committed anew to his faith. Not only would he turn away from hard drink, but he would forswear violence. From 1915 on, the ruffian York was gone.


York stepped away from violence just in time for violence to come to him. As a patriotic American, York registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, after the United States entered World War I. He petitioned for exemption from the draft, however, since his newfound religious convictions forbade violence. York’s claim for conscientious objector status was denied, however. He was drafted in November 1917 and assigned to the 328th Infantry Regiment -part of the 82nd Division. The 82nd was known as the “All-American” Division because it drew recruits from all 48 states of the Union, which is the basis for the “AA” on the shoulder patch of the 82nd Airborne to this day.


York still professed reluctance to fight, much like later conscientious objector and war hero Desmond Doss. In long conversations with his commanding officer, however, he changed his views to accommodate a just war fought for a good cause. After a visit home, where he promised his mother and siblings that he would take care of them, he made his peace with his faith and came back to the ranks convinced that God had chosen this path for him. In May 1918, the 82nd Division arrived in France and marched off to war.


York served with the 82nd Division throughout 1918 until the onset of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September. The division was held in reserve at first, but on the night of October 6-7 the 328th Regiment went into action in the Argonne Forest near the town of Cornay. Their objective would be the Decauville Railroad cut, held in force by the German Army.


York’s battalion, the 3-328 Infantry Regiment, was tasked with capturing the railroad cut on October 8, 1918. The Germans had a strong position defended by multiple machine gun nests overlooking an open field. As the inexperienced Americans advanced, they came under intense fire from the cut, and the first waves “went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home,” in York’s words. The whole battalion dropped to their bellies under the hammering fire of the machine guns and incoming artillery rounds, struggling to find cover in the blasted landscape of the Argonne Forest.


Sergeant Bernard Early selected a number of men to slip behind the German lines and take out the machine guns that were pinning down the rest of their battalion. Among these picked men was 30-year-old Corporal Alvin York, well-known for being the best marksman in the battalion. Slipping in quick rushes across the moonlike vista, they found a gap in the German lines and managed to pass the machine guns without being shot to pieces. Early’s small detachment made its way into enemy country, surprised a German headquarters, and took a large number of prisoners. It seemed like they were on the verge of success.


Just as Early’s mission looked like it was panning out, though, one of the machine gunners noticed his small strike team and turned the weapon around, spraying bullets across the American squad. Six Americans were killed, and others – including Early himself – were wounded. This left Corporal York in charge of what was left of the squad, stuck behind enemy lines and virtually surrounded by the German defenses. York ordered his soldiers to guard the prisoners, while he took care of the Germans. All by himself.


York dashed from cover to cover, under fire from machine guns and German riflemen all the way. He found a position that gave him a good enfilade fire on the German trench, and just started shooting. “As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them…all I could do was touch the Germans off as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting…it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.” York would later claim to his brigade commander, General Lindsey, that a higher power had been guiding him during the action.


York was facing off an entire trench of German machine guns and infantrymen, about thirty at least, on his lonesome. As he was peppering them with accurate, deadly rifle fire – a skill he had learned in the Tennessee mountains – he was suddenly ambushed by six other German soldiers who charged him with bayonets. York dropped his empty rifle, drew his Colt .45, and shot each German soldier before they could close with him. Finally, a German officer emptied his entire pistol at the charging York – failing to kill him – before the Tennessee Corporal bellowed at him to surrender. The German officer surrendered his entire unit, and an astonished York could only stare as 132 German soldiers emerged from the trench line. He had stood off an entire battalion without knowing it, and taken the whole unit prisoner.


York and his remaining soldiers led the captured Germans back to their lines, as General Lindsey asked in amazement if he had captured the whole German Army. The defeat of the machine gun posts allowed the 328th Infantry to continue its offensive that day and capture the railroad cut by the end of the day. York himself was rapidly promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – though after an investigation of the incident, this would later be upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor.


York was personally awarded his Medal of Honor by General Pershing, and also decorated with the Croix de Guerre by Marshal Foch (who called his exploit “the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier”). He did not become famous, however, until a Saturday Evening Post article described his exploit in the Argonne on April 26, 1919. York was catapulted to instant celebrity status, and soon became a feted and famous figure across the United States and especially in his home state of Tennessee. He was celebrated with banquets and a special train car on his return to the United States, given a standing ovation by the House of Representatives, and generally acclaimed as the great American hero: Sergeant York, the God-fearing, log cabin, Tennessee farm boy who had stuck it to the Kaiser.


If this were a movie, that would be where the movie ended. But it’s not.


Why was it that Sergeant Alvin C. York, more than any other figure, came to represent the American war hero of World War I? We know he’s famous, and justifiably so, but York was far from America’s only significant war story. Private Frank Gaffney of Buffalo, New York, performed a similar feat in France, earning the nickname “human hurricane” for serving as a one-man storming party that captured a whole series of German trenches. 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Woodfill of Indiana not only single-handedly destroyed THREE machine-gun nests, but did so while suffering under the effects of mustard gas and led his whole unit back to the lines without losing a single man. So why York, and not these equally deserving men?


We Americans like our war heroes a certain way. York fit the description of the war hero that the United States WANTED at the time: a backwoods marksman, a simple and unsophisticated man, a reluctant hero, a strapping young mountain lad. He had the unique life story of having both been a rapscallion rebel hooligan AND a man of Jesus, which different people admired for different reasons. He symbolized the mix of born-again piety, familial duty, self-made status, and ultra-masculine violence that obsessed Progressive-era America. York helped convince America that World War I had been a holy crusade, due to his assertion that God had been with him. In all, Alvin York was America’s perfect hero for World War I. He was the marketable package.


This did not change who Alvin York was; indeed, one of the most impressive qualities York possessed was the ability to stay true to himself even when catapulted into national fame. York refused any offer to profit from his newfound fame, refusing to engage in the rat race of American capitalism. Instead, he used his name to market charitable causes and promote the economic development of backwoods Tennessee.


As much as the national media tended to fetishize his poor and uneducated background, one of York’s major goals in life was to end the very conditions that had created him. He put his name to proposals to bring highways and electricity to rural Tennessee, and would later be a strong supporter of FDR’s New Deal and the Tennessee Valley Authority. York was a proud Democrat until the day he died, and ceaselessly campaigned for the poor mountaineers of his heritage. He founded the Alvin C. York foundation in the 1920s, which aimed to create a better public education system for Tennessee.


So yeah, people nowadays would probably call Sergeant York a libtard.


York was married to Gracie Williams in 1919, when he had only been home for a week – though the marriage was officiated by the Tennessee Governor, who then awarded York a special medal from the state. (I thought MY soldiers were bad about marrying the first person they saw after deployment.) York also accepted the gift of a 400-acre farm in the mountains of Tennessee, the only gift he ever accepted, where he would raise his family; he and Gracie eventually had eight children.


As the United States moved into a new age, Alvin York continued his life’s work. He fought bitterly with the Tennessee politicians to fund schools for the poor. He often confused audiences when he refused to talk about his Medal of Honor action: “I’m trying to forget the war in the interest of the mountain boys and girls I grew up among.” When the Great Depression hit, York found himself swimming uphill to get his schools funded; he even mortgaged his own farm to provide school buses for the students. In 1935, he took up a job developing local state parks. York never stopped trying to build the country he had fought for, and he never wanted to talk about the war.


Until war threatened again. Alvin York was one of America’s few outspoken voices in favor of interventionism during the leadup to World War II – a strange contrast to his previous belief in pacifism. In a speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he encouraged his countrymen to declare war on Nazi Germany, saying “We must fight again! The time is not now ripe, nor will it ever be, to compromise with Hitler, or the things he stands for."


When the United States did enter the war, York tried to reenlist, only to be gently reminded that he was 54 years old, overweight, and diabetic. He instead participated in fundraising and propaganda efforts around the country, including raising funds for the Red Cross. York was vociferous in his opposition to Naziism, racism, and fascism of all stripes – even picking a fight with American aviator and proto-fascist Charles Lindbergh.


Yeah, so people nowadays would probably call Alvin York antifa.


His taste for intervention did not stop there. York would become even more aggressive after World War II, advocate the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike, and say we should have nuked China during the Korean War.


So they’d also call him a warmonger neocon. Buzzwords are fun, huh?


York’s health had begun to decline in the 1940s, and he was soon overweight and suffering from pneumonia. He had a stroke in 1948, and by 1954 was confined to a bed and going blind. Despite these ailments, the war hero lingered on until his passing on September 2, 1964, at 76 years old. He lies today in the Wolf River Cemetery of Pall Mall, Tennessee, not far from where he grew up. York may have been an American hero, but he was born, lived and died a Tennessee mountain boy, looking out for his own neck of the woods. His wife Gracie followed him in 1984.


But a man’s story is not always done with his death. Who is Sergeant York to us?


York rose to prominence once again during World War II when in 1941 a feature film was made about his exploits in the Argonne, starring Gary Cooper and titled only “Sergeant York.” Released months before Pearl Harbor, it helped galvanize American opinion against Nazi Germany. York is presented as the reluctant pacifist hero who only converts after being struck by lightning. Notably, York did not want the film to be made, but acceded in order to gain the funds for a Bible school. York was not the first, or last American war hero to be remembered in film. He would be followed by others, but there are two I want to mention: Audie Murphy and Chris Kyle.


Each of these men – York, Murphy, Kyle – represents the favored archetype of the American war hero. Country boys who grew up simply, held to their faith, and did what they had to do in the heat of a crisis even though they hated to kill: at least, that’s the frame they are fit into. The American war hero is always a reluctant, but valiant warrior. And the American war hero is an utter myth.


Because Alvin York did not fit that frame, no matter how much the American people wanted him to. He was a mixed bag of a man, capable of great violence and extraordinary mercy and charity, somehow balancing these two halves of himself within the same body. It is a paradox that we want our gentlest men to somehow be our greatest warriors, and vice versa, but as we have seen York had a violent streak in him throughout his whole life and only restrained it through self-discipline and a brittle faith. Far from being the pacifist of myth, he had become a fierce advocate for righteous violence in his later years. Far from being a simple traditionalist, he fought long and hard to modernize his home country and destroy the environment of his upbringing. Far from shunning the spotlight, he seized it and used it to champion his pet causes.


What we see in the media when we see the American war hero is not the person, the man, or the reality. We see what Americans want their heroes to be, not what they actually are. The image of the American war hero tells us more about ourselves, as a country, than it does about the man. It is our mirror test.


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