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Who Was Sergeant York?

History Q & A




Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

In recounting episodes from the life of Alvin C. York (1887-1964), particularly his phenomenal exploit of 8 October 1918 in the Argonne Forest during World War One, it is not my intent to glorify war. Even so, the battles of history often bring out the best in men (and, of course, sometimes the worst). Let us try to honor the heroism and forget the cowardice, if not the cruelty, of many combatants.

Before treating York's almost miraculous feat of arms, it is imperative to relate two circumstances from his youth--proficiency with a rifle and a conversion to Christianty. Born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, near the Wolfe River, he learned to shoot from his father William, whom Alvin called the"best shot in the mountains." Before long though the son gained a reputation for marksmanship superior to his father's.

The men of the Cumberland Mountains, where the Yorks lived, perfected their shooting skills at Saturday matches, where the targets were often nothing bigger to hit than criss-cross cuts with a sharp knife on trees. At other times the men took part in what were known as"turkey shoots." On those occasions, turkeys were either tied to a stake at a distance of 150 yards, or, instead tied behind a log about 40 yards away, which meant only the bobbing heads of the turkeys became the targets.

For the shooting, either at marks on trees or at turkeys, the men of the mountains preferred, as did Alvin even after his days in World War One (when he had a high-powered Army rifle), to shoot with old cap-and-ball muzzle-loaders, often inherited from pioneer ancestors. To York's way of thinking, those antique weapoms"just didn't know how to miss."

Whatever the truth of the matter, when York reached Camp Gordon near Atlanta, Georgia, in November 1917, where he was assigned to Company G of the 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, he soon discovered how"green" almost all of his fellow soldiers were on the rifle range. Most of those men, many of whom were of Greek, Italian, Polish, or Jewish descent, had come from the big cities, where they had seldom, if ever, learned much about the use of rifles. As York observed--they knew little about"handling guns" and, as a consequence, usually"missed everything but the sky." Not so with York, who found the Army's bull's-eye targets mere child's play to hit.

Now, for the marksman's religious life. After attending some nightly revivals of a traveling preacher, York came to know Christ as Lord and Savior, at which time (on 1 January 1915), he pledged himself to foreswear, among other things, drinking, gambling, smoking, and fighting, all of which he had done with a vengeance before that day. He kept his promises to God for the rest of his life.

His experience of conversion had another profound effect. It convinced him, especially as he continued to study the teachings of Jesus, that all violence, and certainly war, were wrong and to be avoided.

So, when York received his draft notice in 1917, he declared himself as a conscientious objector. But his church was not approved for him to hold such status, as it was not recognized as a well- defined sect. York appealed this decision, but lost. Then, without further remonstrance, he acceded to the order to report for duty on 14 November 1917.

Soon thereafter two things conspired to change him from a pacifist to a man willing to bear arms. For one, in boot camp a lively debate with his battalion commander for more than an hour, opened his mind somewhat, though it did not yet persuade him, of the necessity, sometimes at least, of fighting, including with weapons.

What finally turned York from a position of nonviolence, however, stemmed from time spent back home on a ten-day furlough in March 1918. After much praying in the solitude of the Tennessee mountains, he convinced himself that a man could continue in righteousness yet still engage in combat. From that day forth, always strengthened by his faith, York became a soldier, as we shall see, who fought without the fear of death, which most men in battle even dread to think about.

Let us now proceed to relate a truly amazing feat of arms, so far as one combatant is concerned, which must rate as astounding both for bravery and for resourcefulness in the whole history of warfare. It happened this way. The 82nd Division, to which York belonged, went into action in the Argonne Forest, with the responsibility of protecting the American left flank. The objective in the battle was the Decauville Railroad, which had been supplying the German troops. The Americans finally took control of the rail line, but not before heavy fighting involving York's platoon. This force was ambushed by the Germans, who subjected the outnumbered Americans to withering machine-gun fire. So severe was it, in fact, only York and seven privates escaped unharmed. And, since several Germans had been previously captured, the privates found themselves either guarding those prisoners or ministering to the wounded. That left York alone to fire upon the machine gunners.

Without hesitation he took the initiative from a prone position. With unerring aim York commenced killing Germans on the hillside, before taking to his feet. He stood his ground, sharpshooting without missing a shot,"touching off," as he put it, one German machine gunner's head after another, who were all sighting on him from no more than 30 yards away. He continued to squeeze the trigger on his rifle, shooting it"offhand," by which York meant, as he had learned in the mountains of Tennessee, holding the gun at the shoulder with his right elbow high. To balance himself against the rifle's recoil, he leaned backward slightly.

All at once, a German lieutenant, followed by 5 men, climbed from a trench twenty-five yards away, and charged him with fixed bayonets. Undaunted, York, his rifle hot in his hand, dropped that weapon and began to fire with his.45 Colt automatic. Again, without missing a shot, he brought down all 6 Germans, beginning with the trailing man, then proceeding to drop each of the others from the rear to the front. In that way, as York related afterwards, none of those charging him knew the fate of the ones behind; so, none of them took to the ground, where they could have put a volley into him.

Having dispensed with the 6 charging Germans, York picked up his rifle and took aim once again at the remaining machine gunners. He had already dispatched at least half of a number approaching 30, when, before killing any more, he began shouting for them to surrender. York continued so to plead at intervals, while"touching off" one or two more men at a time. But, as he stated: I"didn't want to kill any more'n I had to."

Finally, the shooting stopped, soon after a German major, who had, along with a goodly number of his compatriots, already surrendered, told York (the major had worked in Chicago before the war), he would get the machine gunners still alive to capitulate, if the intrepid American would shoot no more of them. York agreed; so, the major blew a whistle, whereupon the remaining gunners on the hill came down.

Following that, York formed all the German prisoners in columns of two, except for the German major, whom he ordered to walk in front of him at pistol point, with the warning, that if any of the captured men tried anything foolish, York would kill him first. As the whole group proceeded through the German lines toward the Americans, a few more machine-gun nests were encountered. Each time that happened, York marched the German major to the front of the two columns, where the latter received an order from York for the men to surrender.

Such was the result and without incident in each case, except for one deadly confrontation. A single machine gunner refused to leave his position behind a gun, even though York had the German major order him twice to do so. When the loner remained adamant, York shot him, reluctant though he was, for as he said later, that solitary soldier was no doubt a brave man. But, with so many prisoners in train, along with his own men, most of whom were wounded (some severely), York defended his dire decision with the sober reflection that no chances could be taken with even one obstinate German.

By the time York and his motley procession came near the American lines, he had so many prisoners, there was some danger his own men in the trenches would mistake the approaching marchers for a German counterattack! So, when a soldier guarding the Americasn lines called for a halt, York at once took a position in front of the POWs, where his uniform could be readily seen. Once within the safety of his own lines, York was asked, if he had" captured the whole damn German army." His reply was both modest and laconic--he had only 132.

In the aftermath of York's remarkable exploit, he received several decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Legion of Honor, and the Congressional Medal of Honor, all awarded by March 1919. But, perhaps the greatest of all his honors concerned a tribute paid to him by French General Ferdinand Foch, who was also the supreme commander of the Allied forces of World War I, when he said of York, that the latter had"accomplished" what amounted to"the greatest thing . . . by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe."


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