Sergeant York has been called "the greatest soldier in history" for his exploits during World War I. But Alvin York never set out to become a soldier, and he never wanted to fight a war or kill anyone. In fact, what he considered his greatest accomplishments came after all the glory of his war exploits. Others tend to disagree. He was a true hero.
Alvin Cullum York was born in 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the third child and oldest son of eleven children. He grew up using a rifle to hunt food, and became a sharpshooter who won local marksman competitions. His skills became even more necessary when his father died and York had to help raise his younger siblings. York attended school for only a few months in his life.
York was a hard-drinking hell-raiser until he joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. His conversion is attributed to the death of his friend Everett Delk in a bar fight, which caused York to reassess his life. The church rejected drinking, gambling, dancing, movies, and violence of all kinds. This pacifist stance caused a moral dilemma for York when he was drafted into the army in 1917. He applied for conscientious objector status, but was turned down at both the local and state level because his church was not recognized as a legitimate Christian sect. He spent two days praying in solitude before reporting for duty. His superiors in the military were baffled by York, who could shoot better than anyone but did not want to go to war. York's company commander and battalion commander held discussions with York and convinced him that in certain circumstances, warfare can serve the greater good. Once York's mind was made up, he became a dedicated soldier. He later wrote that the the application for conscientious objection was not his doing and that he refused to sign the papers.
The events that led to York being designated the "greatest soldier in history" came on October 8, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Seventeen men under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early were ordered behind the German lines, including then-Corporal York. Some accounts say that the unit ended up behind the lines because they misread the French map. After a surprise attack, a group of Germans surrendered. German machine gunners then saw how small the American detachment was and opened fire, killing Sergeant Early and half the unit, and wounding three more. This left York in command. Corporal York picked off the German gunners one by one. From York's diary:
I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.
Between each shot, York yelled for the Germans to surrender if they wanted the shooting to stop. The remaining Germans (who assumed there were many more Americans than there actually were) complied. Newspaper accounts say York "single-handedly" captured the prisoners, but York himself credits his compatriots by saying the unit surrounded the enemy. York shot between 20 and 28 Germans (accounts vary; most say around 25). The remaining 90 or so surrendered. As the Americans made their way back to the Allied lines, they picked up more German prisoners along the way for a total of 132 captured.
York was promoted to Sergeant and continued to fight in France until the armistice was signed on November 11th. York was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, the Badge of Nobility, and the French Croix de Guerre, among other awards.
Back in Tennessee, York married his sweetheart Gracie Williams eight days after his arrival home. They eventually had ten children, three of whom died in infancy.
York regretted not having the opportunity to become educated as a child. in 1926, he founded the York Institute, a school in Jamestown, Tennessee. He raised funds to start the school as a private high school and in 1937 persuaded the state to provide public support. He considered the school his greatest achievement.
When I went out into that big outside world I realized how un-educated I was and what a terrible handicap it was. I was called to lead my people toward a sensible modern education. For years I have been planning and fighting to build the school. And it has been a terrible fight. A much more terrible fight than the one that I fought in the war. And so I head into the frontline and fight another fight. And I can't use the old rifle or Colt automatic this time. And it has been a long hard fight.
The original school building was scheduled to be demolished last year, but is now undergoing restoration as a historical site. York also supported an elementary school which now bears his name. He turned down many moneymaking opportunities because he didn't believe in cashing in on his military service, but he was open to raising funds for schools, churches, and charities. Image by Flickr users Brent and MariLynn.
In 1941, York consented to the project of turning his diary into a movie on the condition that Gary Cooper portray him. The film Sergeant York was a smash hit and earned an Oscar for Cooper and a nomination for Best Film. The movie is a straightforward account from York's diary, with only one fictional embellishment -York did not convert after he was struck by lightning. He used the proceeds of the film to found the York Bible Institute.
Sergeant York attempted to reenlist during World War II but was denied due to his age. He served his country again anyway, touring the nation to encourage the sale of war bonds. He helped to create the Tennessee State Guard in 1941. York also operated a store and gristmill in his hometown. Alvin C. York died on September 2, 1964 at the Veteran's Hospital in Nashville. He was 76.