World War I Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient
Sgt. Alvin C. York, US Army
Sergeant York Biography
Sgt. York Wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor
The boy that was destined to become Fentress County's most famous son was born at Pall Mall in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf on December 13, 1887. He was christened Alvin Cullum York, the son of William and Mary Brooks York. Alvin was the third son, following brothers Henry and Joe in that order. He was followed in turn by brothers Sam and Albert, sister Hattie, brothers George and James, sister Lillie, brother Robert, and sister Lucy in that order.
There was nothing in the horoscope of the York family at the time of Alvin's birth that gave even a remote indication that here was a child destined to make Fentress County and Pall Mall household words throughout America and much of the world.
True, he came from hardy pioneer stock, tracing his ancestry back to colonial forebears migrating from North Carolina on his father's side of the family, and to Coonrod (Conrad) Pile, first settler in the Valley of the Three Forks, on his mother's side. In fact, Old Coonrod was his great-great-grandfather. The little farm on which Alvin Cullum York was born and on which the York family eked out a precarious living was part of the once extensive land holdings of Coonrod Pile himself. The cabin where Alvin was born stood only a matter of 150 or 200 yards from the cave above the big spring where Old Coonrod spent his first night in the valley. Alvin's father for many years ran a blacksmith shop in the cave, moving it down to a small building beside the public road only a few years before his death in 1911.
Great estates when divided among large families for two or three generations can be reduced to small, marginal farms barely capable of keeping the wolf from the door. This had happened to the Coonrod Pile estate. His vast holdings had been reduced by division until third generation Nancy Pile Brooks had only 75 acres. This she gave to her son, William Brooks, while her daughter Mary, was given the share of her Aunt Polly Pile. This was 70 acres, "part level and part hilly." Mary got her portion when she married William York and the two set up housekeeping in what was once a crib on the Coonrod Pile land. Seventy-five acres of rocky hillside has mighty little productive capacity when there are thirteen mouths to feed. It was said of Alvin's father that "he just about succeeded in making a hard living."
Alvin's immediate ancestors came over the mountains from Buncombe County, North Carolina and settled in the Indian Creek section of Fentress County. John York was the father of Uriah York who was the father of William York who was Alvin's father. The Indian Creek Yorks were farmers, but Alvin's grandfather, Uriah, started one of the few schools then in Fentress County. His school ran for three months starting after crops were laid by in the summer. He used only two textbooks, the Blue-Backed Speller and the Bible.
In addition to his farming and teaching, Uriah York was also a soldier in the United States Army in two wars, the Mexican War and the Civil War. He was one of the Fentress County volunteers in the Mexican War and was with the American Army that stormed the heights at Chapultepec. When the Civil War broke out, he went north into Kentucky and joined the Federal forces. Becoming ill, he returned to the home of his wife's father in Jamestown. He was recuperating in bed when he heard that a band of Confederates was approaching. He got up from his sick bed and fled through a rain and sleet storm to a shack in Rock Castle where three days later he died from the exposure. Thus died the paternal grandfather of Alvin York at the age of forty after serving his country in two wars in addition to being a farmer, a teacher, and one of the early settlers of Fentress County.
Alvin's maternal grandfather met an even more tragic death after the war's end but as a direct result of the hatreds spawned by the war. He was a Union soldier named William Brooks who had joined the Union Army at his home in Michigan and moved south with General Burnside's forces. At Pall Mall he fell in love with Nancy Pile, daughter of Elijah Pile and granddaughter of the renowned Coonrod Pile. Young Brooks deserted the army declaring that the only other conquest of the South that he was interested in making was the conquest of Nancy Pile.
After he and Nancy had been married about two years and one daughter had been born to them, an old feud with Pres Huff flared up again and William Brooks killed him. Brooks then fled the country knowing that Huff's friends would soon be there to avenge his death. Several months later Nancy Pile Brooks and her daughter also disappeared. More months passed and finally a letter from Nancy to her family arrived. It had been intercepted by Huff's friends and the Brooks family was located in a logging camp in the wilds of northern Michigan. Extradition papers and warrants were prepared, and Huff's former business partner was sent to Michigan to return William Brooks to Jamestown where he was lodged in jail.
But William Brooks was never to get a trial by law. The next night a band of men rode up the Wolf River Valley, up the mountain and across the plateau to Jamestown. They took William Brooks from the jail, tied a rope around his feet, unbridled a horse, tied the other end of the rope around the horse's tail, fired a shot to scare the horse, and as the horse ran down the road dragging William Brooks the men rode behind firing bullets into his squirming body until he was dead. Now both of Alvin York's grandfathers were dead, both dying tragically as a result of the hatreds engendered by the Civil War.
The lives of both William York and Mary Brooks had been scarred by the tragic loss of their fathers. But life must go on regardless of the suffering along the way. Perhaps these two young people were drawn together by their common tragedies. At any rate, when Mary Brooks, daughter of William Brooks, was fifteen years old she met William York, son of Uriah York, and the two fell in love and got married. Alvin York, who was later to become world famous as Sergeant York, was their third son.
William York was a simple man whose philosophy of life had never been complicated by the corrupting influence of over-ambition and selfishness. He believed contentment and peace of mind were the children of fair play and honest labor. He was so fair and just in his dealings with the people of the valley that he came to be called "Judge York," and people were so convinced of his honesty and impartiality that he was often called upon to arbitrate neighborhood disputes. These were the values that William York taught his children to hang onto. Yet, in spite of his honesty and his fair dealing, and his unselfishness, William York was always a poor man. He was a farmer and a blacksmith, but he was also a hunter and a man of the mountains. He never let the accumulation of material possessions stand in his way when he felt the call of the wild stirring in his hunter's blood. It was his one great weakness, and often at the most inopportune times he would call his hounds and be off on a hunt that sometimes stretched into days or even weeks.
While these long hunts may have had an unhealthy effect upon the family budget, they did serve a purpose as training for his sons who were old enough to accompany him. They all grew up next to nature, learned the ways of the forest, how to stalk game; learned to know all the trees by their leaves and bark; learned the haunts of animals and how to use the long rifle. Mountain men lived by their rifles. They were not weapons to be used in a fight; they were tools with which to supply the table. Those who became truly expert with a rifle used it very effectively each Saturday afternoon to supply meat for the table and even change for the pocket at the weekly shooting matches. These matches brought together the elite of the shooting fraternity, and William York was in the top echelon. In this sport, too, Alvin followed more closely in his father's footsteps than any of the other boys. His skill with his rifle was to play a major role in later years in bringing him worldwide acclaim.
If he learned the lore of the forest, the habits of its creatures and the art of handling a long rifle from his father, he also learned the art of living from his mother. The cornerstone of her philosophy of life was self control. She never allowed anger or excitement to drive her to irrational acts. This inner calm and self control she instilled in all her children, but it was Alvin who fate placed in a position to profit most from it. Neither she nor he could know that years later, after he had grown to mature manhood, the lessons in clear thinking and self control he learned from his untutored mother would save his life and make him an international celebrity. Both parents contributed much to the training of Alvin York that enabled him to perform the feat that made him famous.
William York died in 1911, leaving the entire burden of bringing up the large family on Mary Brooks York. Alvin, at 24, was the oldest of the children still at home and custom thrust upon him the obligation to help his mother support the family. Perhaps this added responsibility helped to drive him to drink, or perhaps the loss of the disciplinary effect of his father tended to make him more reckless, who can say, but for some reason Alvin York became a hard-drinking, gambling, carousing, rough-housing young man. This kept up for some three or four years.
As titular head of the family, he divided the farm work up among his younger brothers, reserving for himself the privilege of working outside to bring in the cash money the family needed. He worked at whatever jobs he could get. In summer he worked on neighboring farms; in winter he hauled staves, logged, or worked at sawmills. He worked six days a week, but Saturday night and Sunday were his days to howl, and the "shack" near the Bald Rock on the Tennessee-Kentucky line was his place to howl. At the "shack" he met his wild friends and associates, and there was much drinking, fighting, wild parties and gambling. Often they would visit the "shack", get drunk, then spread out over the whole area wherever there was a meeting, a box supper, or other activities where they could find a crowd to disturb.
His mother pleaded with her boy to change his ways. He was not himself, she told him, when he was drinking, and she begged him to stop. After one of these sprees she begged him so earnestly and was so convincing in her arguments that he promised her he' d never drink again. From that day on, no drop of whiskey ever tickled the throat of Alvin York.
About that time, too, Alvin took a liking for squirrel. Late afternoon often found him, gun in hand, headed for the woods back of the York farm and along the F. A. Williams farm. Gracie Williams's mother noted also that Gracie, her sixteen-year-old daughter, didn't object to driving the cows in from the backfield pasture any more. But remember this: Whatever is said here about this courtship between Alvin York and Gracie Williams is pure speculation. They didn't talk then nor later, but it is common knowledge that a large flat rock surrounded by great beech trees lies in the area where he hunted squirrels and she drove the cows home. There were carvings in the bark of the beech trees that were not known to the public until the spot was selected as the place where Governor A. H. Roberts would perform the wedding ceremony of Alvin York and Gracie Williams on June 7, 1919.
In the light of all this, the historian wonders if the influence of Gracie Williams might not have carried considerable weight, along with his mother's, in bringing to an end Alvin's wild oats days. A further change in his life came soon after and here, almost certainly, Gracie was very influential. On New Year's day, 1915, Alvin York professed religion and cast his lot with the church instead of the "shack." From that day until his death forty-nine years later, his faith never wavered.
The Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf in 1917 was a dimple in the Cumberlands where "exceeding peace" abounded. But there was one small cloud on the horizon. There had been a trickle of news filtering into the valley about a big war that was going on way across the sea somewhere. The menfolk would gather at R. C. Pile's store on Saturday afternoons and "Pastor" Pile would read to them about the fighting in Europe. They gathered that a country called Germany ruled by a fellow called the Kaiser was the trouble-maker, but until early 1917 it had never occurred to any of them that this far-away conflict could ever affect them in any way. Even after the papers began to express alarm and fear that America was going to be drawn into the blood-letting, the people of the valley could not conceive of a foreign war reaching down into their peaceful valley and disturbing their way of life. If the war were here, they could understand it. Many still remembered the horrors of the Civil War. Even Alvin York knew something of war for both of his grandfathers had died horrible deaths because of it. But a war 4000 miles across a wide ocean, there was no way it could affect them. But even then it was to be only a matter of a few months before Alvin York would be writing this:
"Life's tol'ably queer. You think you've got a grip on it, then you open your hands and find out there's nothing in them. It doesn't go in straight lines like bees to their hives or quail from the covey. It sort of circles like foxes and goes back again to where it began."
So spoke Alvin York in 1917 when Uncle Sam pointed a finger at him and said, "I want you." The big red-headed, raw-boned son of the forest thought he had a grip on life. Before the arrival of a certain card on June 5, 1917, the future never looked brighter for Alvin York. For him life had always been good, even if hard at times. Now it looked better than ever. Hadn't Gracie agreed to marry him when last they met on the limestone ledge under the giant beeches? And hadn't he just been named an elder in their little Church of Christ in Christian Union? With his wild oats days behind him for good, he had learned that leading the singing in church was far better than fighting and brawling and drinking and gambling at the "shack" on the Tennessee-Kentucky line. And finally, his terribly pinched financial circumstances were beginning to show unmistakable signs of improvement. Up until now he had never been able to earn more than one dollar a day. Now he was driving steel on the new highway being built through the valley, and he was making the unbelievable sum of one dollar and sixty cents a day. Alvin York still labored under the delusion that he had a firm grip on all the good things. Even at this late date, he could not imagine opening his hands and finding them empty, all his good things taken away by a war 4000 miles from his valley across mountains and plains and an ocean.
The card that arrived on June 5, 1917 was his notice to register for the draft. Not until then would he acknowledge, even to himself, that fate had caught up with him. Describing this day when his world began to disintegrate around him, he wrote: "I kind of lived in a dream the next few days (after Gracie had promised to marry him) and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, so it seemed to me, life sort of took me by the back of the neck and tried to lift me out of our little valley and throw me into the war over there in France. I received from the post office a little red card telling me to register for the draft."
The small cloud on the horizon of just a few months before had now spread all the way around the world, casting its shadow over the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. Alvin York "opened his hands" to find there was "nothing in them."
He started keeping a diary on that fateful June 5th, the day he got his notice to register for the draft. From that day on until May 29, 1919 when he arrived back in his Valley of the Three Forks, Alvin recorded every activity he took part in. The tempo of the military machine shifted into high gear for Alvin York after June 5th. On that date he registered. On October 28th he reported for his physical examination. After that he had no doubt about going to the army. He says: "They looked at me and weighed me and I weighed 170 pounds and was 72 inches tall. So, they said I passed all right. Well, when they said that I almost knowed that I would have to go to the army." On November 14, he reported for induction, on the 15th he left Oneida for Camp Gordon, Georgia, and on the 16th he arrived in Camp Gordon.
The world has been under the impression that Alvin York was a conscientious objector who tried unsuccessfully to avoid serving in the army. Technically, this was not so, although at one point he admitted it and at another denied it categorically. Let the reader make up his own mind after reading the next few pages.
Alvin York did not want to go to war. He freely admits that and tells why. He says, "There were two reasons why I didn't want to go to war. My own experience told me it wasn't right, and the Bible was against it too.....but Uncle Sam said he wanted me, and I had been brought up to believe in my country."
If there is anything one can say about Alvin York without fear of contradiction, it is that he was patriotic. He loved his country, and what is more, he came from a long line of patriots who had fought for their country all the way from King's Mountain to New Orleans, Chapultepec and Shiloh. In addition to York's direct family ancestors who had fought for their country since the Revolution, he also felt a close kinship with such frontier greats as Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. The influence of all these patriotic ancestors, both by blood and by culture, weighed heavily on the mind of Alvin York as the day of his induction into the army moved closer and even after he got to Camp Gordon. He describes his dilemma in these words:
"So you see my religion and my experience...told me not to go to war, and the memory of my ancestors...told me to get my gun and go fight. I didn't know what to do. I'm telling you there was a war going on inside me, and I didn't know which side to lean to. I was a heap bothered. It is a most awful thing when the wishes of your God and your country...get mixed up and go against each other. One moment I would make up my mind to follow God, and the next I would hesitate and almost make up my mind to follow Uncle Sam. Then I wouldn't know which to follow or what to do. I wanted to follow both but I couldn't. They were opposite. I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American too."
Up to this point in the sheltered life of the isolated valley in which Alvin York had lived, he had never come face to face with and had to choose between two great principles or courses of action. He had always just assumed that being a good Christian and being a good, patriotic American were one and the same thing. At least they were so closely connected that a man dedicated to one would automatically be dedicated to the other. Now he was learning it was not so in the light of what he had always been taught about Christianity and about patriotism. The complexities of theology and its application to living in a world far more complex than he had imagined, drove him to cry out, "I am a soul in doubt."
The records in the War Department in Washington will always make it appear that Alvin York was a conscientious objector. He was not. He was a "soul in doubt" as he said. He was torn between what he thought was his duty to his country and his God. When this conflict was resolved in his mind, he never again voiced objection to fighting, killing if necessary, for his country. The petitions filed asking exemption from military duty were initiated by Pastor Pile and his mother. "My little old mother and Pastor Pile wanted me to get out," he wrote in his diary.
"Pastor Pile put in a plea to the government that it was against the religion of our church to fight, and that he wanted to get me out on these grounds. And he sent his papers to the War Department, and they filled them out and sent them to me at the camp and asked me to sign them.
"They told me all I had to do was to sign them. And I refused to sign them, as I couldn't see it the way Pastor Pile did. My mother, too, put in a plea to get me out as her sole support. My father was dead and I was keeping my mother and brothers and sisters. And the papers were fixed up and sent to Camp Gordon and I was asked to sign them. I knew I had plenty of brothers back there who could look after my mother, that I was not the sole support, and I didn't feel I ought to do it. And so I never asked for exemption on any grounds at all. I never was a conscientious objector. I am not today. I didn't want to go and fight and kill. But I had to answer the call of my country and I did. I believed it was right. I have got no hatred toward the Germans and I never had."
Here we have a direct statement from Alvin York denying categorically that he ever was a conscientious objector. But we have another direct quotation from another book stating that "....so long as the records remain I will be officially known as a conscientious objector. I was. I joined the church. I had taken its creed, and I had taken it without what you might call reservations. I was not a Sunday Christian. I believed in the Bible, and I tried in my own way to live up to it."
Here we have two direct statements which appear to be flatly contradictory: "I never was a conscientious objector," and "So long as the records remain I will be officially known as a conscientious objector. I was."
How do we reconcile these statements? Or can we reconcile them? I think we can.
Those who knew Alvin York personally knew how confused he was at that time. In that confused state of mind he interpreted the term "conscientious objector" in two different ways, as it was used by the War Department and as he saw it in the light of his church creed and the Bible. By the former interpretation he was not a conscientious objector; by the latter he was. His lack of education made it impossible for him to comprehend entirely the two horns of the dilemma upon which he was impaled. In his own writing he gives us a basis for this explanation: "Only the boy who is uneducated can understand what an awful thing ignorance is . . . . I know what I want to say, but I don't always know just how to put it down on paper. I just don't know how to get it out of me and put it in words."
The conflict raged on in his mind. He was still the "soul in doubt knowing that he really wanted to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and fight for his country, but finding no way to reconcile war and killing with his own conscience and the creed of his church.
From November 17, 1917 until February 1, 1918 he was assigned to the 21st Training Battalion. There he did squads right and squads left until he became proficient in close-order drill. During this time, also, he was low man on the military totem pole and forced to do many menial tasks such as picking up cigarette butts from the camp grounds. "I thought that was pretty bad as I didn't smoke," he said, "but I did it just the same." He also suffered from homesickness for his mountain-rimmed valley in Fentress County. "I had never been out of the mountains before," he wrote, "and I'm telling you I missed them right smart. It's pretty flat and sandy country down there in Georgia, and there ain't no strength or seasoning in it. It sure needs hills and mountains most awful bad."
Alvin York felt a perpetual love for and kinship with his hills and valleys. He wrote: "I used to walk out in the night under the stars and linger on the hillside, and I wanted to put my arms around them-there hills. They were at peace, and so was the world, and so was I." Of course that was before news of the great war had filtered into his valley.
This homesick soldier was sincere when he spoke of his love of and longing for the mountains that surrounded his beloved valley. They had helped him find the peace of mind that all men long for, and he says, "When you have found love and peace of soul, you are beginning to find out what life is all about. I guess them-there two things, love and peace, are what folks call the fundamental things."
On February 1, 1918 Private Alvin York, his "squads right" and "squads left" behind him, was assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division. This was known as the All-American Division because it was composed of men from every state in the Union. Now came shooting practice. This was the easy part for Pvt. York. It was here that his father's training with the long rifle began to pay off. In a short time he was a sharpshooter and was being asked to teach others to shoot. All his experience shooting game and shooting in the Saturday afternoon matches made "army shooting" tol'ably easy for me," York said.
Departure for Europe and the shooting war was now only a matter of weeks for Alvin York, but he was still "a soul in doubt" and far from sure that he could conscientiously shoot a fellow human being. His officers, Capt. Danforth and Major Buxton, were so impressed with his sincerity and his honesty that they took a personal interest in him, often discussing with him personally the conflict which raged in his mind between his religious convictions and his patriotism. Sometimes these heart-to-heart talks lasted until late at night. On the last night they met with York, Capt. Danforth read from the Book of Ezekiel to prove that the Bible did approve fighting under some circumstances. It is recorded that after Capt. Danforth read the passage from Ezekiel, York stood up, lifted himself to his full 6 feet 2 inches, and looking like a great burden had been lifted from him announced: "All right, I'm satisfied."
From that night on, all doubts seem to have left him, and he plunged whole-heartedly into the business of becoming a soldier. He accepted the fact that there was a job to do, that it was his duty to help do it, and that it was right that he should. But it was a job to be done not for glory or honor or fame, but for the good of mankind. To Alvin York, doing a job like this made of a man a good, patriotic citizen, not a hero. That is why he has been referred to as a "reluctant hero." If he was a hero at all, he was a reluctant one. He never laid claim to being a hero, and he did not seek notoriety or fame. He did not go into the army seeking glory. In fact he did not go into the army at all; he was taken in. Tennesseans have glorified war and sought fame in conflict since colonial days. Thus the name, "Volunteer State." But not Alvin York. He hated war. His church and his personal religious convictions opposed killing in any form.
After a 10-day leave spent at home conducting a revival meeting at Greer's Chapel, Alvin York started back to Camp Gordon on March 29, 1918. He knew that within a few days he would be heading overseas. He describes it as a "...heartbreaking time for me, as I knew I had to go to France. But I went back to my company trusting in God and asking Him to keep me, although I had many trials and much hardship and temptation, but then the Lord would bless me and I almost felt sure of coming back home, for the Lord was with me."
York's 82nd Division left Camp Gordon on April 19, 1918 going to Camp Upton, New York. From there they went to Boston where they embarked for England on May 1st, Alvin's diary records daily where they were and what they did. From the time of their arrival in Liverpool, England on May 16th until they arrived at the front lines in France on June 27th, they were gradually moving into the war zone. From June 27th until July 4th, Alvin got his first taste of front line warfare, but it was a quiet sector. "The only firing we had there was from snipers," he wrote in his diary. "We were new troops and we were nervous and jumpy at first. But soon we realized it was no use. You never hear the one that gets you. There is no use worrying about shells for you can't keep them from bursting in your trench, nor you can't stop the rain nor prevent a light from going up just as you are halfway over the parapet. So what is the use of worrying if you can't alter things?"
York saw little really serious action until September 12, when the St. Mihiel drive started. His outfit fought through the St. Mihiel sector and then went into the Battle of the Argonne on September 28th. On October 4th he recorded in his diary: "We hadn't yet reached the main battle grounds, but we moved up on the fourth and I'm telling you the woods were shot all to pieces and the ground was all tore up with shells." On October 5th he writes that "the airplanes were humming over our heads, and we were stumbling over dead horses and dead men, and the shells were bursting all around us." Alvin York was getting his first taste of the ferocity of war, and three days from the day he wrote this he was destined to perform the feat which Marshal Foch declared to be "the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe."
Alvin York's appointment with destiny came on the morning of October 8, 1918 in the Argonne forest of France. It was the first offensive battle of the Argonne, and his battalion was one of the attacking battalions. Orders came down on the night of October 7th for them to take Hill 223 on the morning of the 8th, then drive across a narrow valley surrounded on three sides by hills fortified by German machine guns. Their mission was to destroy the machine gun nests and press on to the Decauville Railroad which was their objective.
The attack bogged down under the withering fire from their front and both flanks. A hurried conference decided the only way to continue the advance was to knock out the machine gun nests on the hill to their left. A detachment of one non-commissioned officer and sixteen men were detailed to circle around the end of the hill and attack the machine gun nests from the rear. Alvin York, then a corporal, was one of these seventeen men. Crawling through the undergrowth, they succeeded in passing around the German flank and getting behind their lines.
Now let Alvin tell the rest of the story in his own words. In his diary under the date of October 8, 1918:
"....there was 17 of us boys went around on the left flank to see if we couldn't put those guns out of action. So when we went around and fell in behind those guns, we first saw two Germans with Red Cross bands on their arms. So we asked them to stop and they did not. So one of the boys shot at them and they run back to our right. So we all run after them, and when we jumped across a little stream of water that was there, they was about 15 or 20 Germans jumped up and threw up their hands and said, 'Kame rad!' So the one in charge of us boys told us not to shoot; they was going to give up anyway. (These prisoners included a major and two other officers). By this time some of the Germans from on the hill was shooting at us. Well, I was giving them the best I had, and by this time the Germans had got their machine guns turned around and fired on us. So they killed six and wounded three of us. So that just left 8, and then we got into it right by this time. So we had a hard battle for a little while, and I got hold of the German major and he told me if I wouldn't kill any more of them he would make them quit firing. So I told him all right if he would do it now. So he blew a little whistle and they quit shooting and come down and gave up. I had killed over 20 before the German major said he would make them give up. I covered him with my automatic and told him if he didn't make them stop firing I would take his head off next. And he knew I meant it. After he blew his whistle, all but one of them came off the hill with their hands up, and just before that one got to me he threw a little hand grenade which burst in the air in front of me. I had to touch him off. The rest surrendered without any more trouble. There were nearly a 100 of them. We had about 80 or 90 Germans there disarmed, and had another line of Germans to go through to get out. So I called for my men, and one of them answered from behind a big oak tree, and the others were on my right in the brush. (All the non-commissioned officers had been killed or severely wounded except York. This left him in command). So I said, 'Let's get these Germans out of here.' One of my men said, 'It is impossible.' So I said, 'No; let's get them out of here.' So when my man said that, the German major said, 'How many have you got?' And I said that, 'I have got plenty,' and pointed my pistol at him all the time. In this battle I was using a rifle and a .45 Colt automatic. So I lined the Germans up in a line of two's, and I got between the ones in front, and I had the German major before me. So I marched them straight into those other machine guns and I got them. So when I got back to my major's P.C. (post of command) I had 132 prisoners."
Throughout the investigation that followed York's fight in the Argonne, he consistently played down the importance of the action. In his diary he sums up the fight in which he killed more than twenty men and captured 132 with this line : "So we had a hard battle for a little while." No boasting in that simple statement. When he marched his prisoners back to the battalion post of command, Brigadier General Lindsey said to him, "Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army," to which York replied modestly, "No, I only have 132." He seemed almost apologetic for bringing in a mere handful of prisoners.
The next morning twenty-eight dead Germans were found at the scene of the fight. York says that is the number of shots he fired. They also found thirty-five German machine guns and a lot of other small arms and ammunition.
The officers of the 82nd Division made this official report to General Headquarters: "The part which Corporal York individually played in the attack (the capture of the Decauville Railroad) is difficult to estimate. Practically unassisted he captured 132 Germans (three of whom were officers), took about thirty-five machine guns, and killed no less than twenty-five of the enemy, later found by others on the scene of York's extraordinary exploit. The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from headquarters of this division and is entirely substantiated. Although York's statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame, it has been decided to forward to higher authorities the account given in his own name. The success of this assault had a far-reaching effect in relieving the enemy pressure against American forces in the heart of the Argonne Forest."
The official history of the 82nd Division states that York's exploit in the Argonne Forest "will always be retold in the military tradition of our country. It is entitled to a place among the famous deeds in arms in legendary or modern warfare." Following this exploit which made him famous, York stayed on in the front lines in the Argonne from October 8 until November 1. It was during this time that he had his closest call. "The nearest I came to getting killed in France," he wrote, "was in an apple orchard in Sommerance in the Argonne." They were digging in during a German artillery barrage when a big shell hit immediately in front of them. York describes the experience: "I have dug on farms and in gardens and in road work and on the railroad, but it takes big shells dropping close by to make you really dig. And I'm telling you the dirt was flying. And then Bang!....one of the big shells struck the ground right in front of us and we all went up in the air. But we all came down again. Nobody was hurt, but it sure was close."
On November 1, York's outfit was relieved from the front lines and sent back to a rest camp. In his diary he writes that "I was made a sergeant just as quick as I got back out of the lines." And then he adds: "But oh, my! So many of my old buddies were missing and we scarcely seemed the same outfit." On November 7, he was given a 10-day furlough to Aix-les-Bains. While resting in Aix-les-Bains, the Armistice was signed on November 11 ending the war.
What did Sgt. York think about the Armistice and the ending of the war? "I don't know that I can just exactly tell my feelings at that time," he writes, "It was awful noisy. All the French were drunk, whooping and hollering. The Americans were drinking with them, all of them. I never did anything much, just went to church and wrote home and read a little. I did not go out that night. I was all tired. I was glad the Armistice was signed, glad it was all over. There had been enough fighting and killing. And my feelings were like most of the American boys. It was all over and we were ready to go home. I felt they had done the thing they should have done, signing the Armistice."
Between November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed, ending the war, and May 10, 1919, when Sgt. York boarded ship for his return to the States, he traveled extensively in France. For several weeks he traveled to military installations in France speaking to the soldiers. On February 11, 1919 he took part in a Division Review at Prauthoy, France where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He attended the organizational meeting of the American Legion in Paris on April 7, 1919, and became a charter member of that organization. On April 18, at a review at St. Silva, France, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and On April 24, also at St. Silva, Marshal Foch pinned the French Croix de Guerre on him.
During all the months after the war's end he was anxious to get started home. He wrote in his diary: "I wanted all the time to get back to the mountains where I belonged. I wanted to live the quiet life again and escape from the mad rush of the world. We had done the job we set out to do, and now, like all the other American soldiers, I wanted to get back home."
On May 10, 1919 he boarded the U.S.S. Ohio in Bordeaux, France, and after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic, landed at Hoboken, New Jersey at 2:00 P.M. on May 22. The war was over for peace-loving Sgt. Alvin C. York.
The Tennessee Society in New York met him at the boat and took him for a sight-seeing trip into New York City. New Yorkers love to stage a grand welcome for any celebrity, and the ticker tape parade they gave him set a record at the time. It was all very nice, he wrote in his diary, but Alvin York's heart was not in it. "I wanted to get back to my people where I belonged," he wrote, " and the little old mother and the little mountain girl who were waiting."
From New York he came to Washington where he was honored at a joint meeting of both houses of Congress and met with Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. He then returned to New York and Camp Merritt where he got his transportation papers to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. There he was discharged.
On May 29, 1919 Alvin York arrived back at his home in Pall Mall, Tennessee. Thousands of Tennesseans had gathered along the railroad tracks and the highways over which he traveled to try to get a glance at the red-headed Tennessean who had gone to war reluctantly and brought back to Tennessee and Fentress County the nation's highest honors.
Alvin York was back in his beloved valley. The war was over. What came next? He didn't really know for he had not projected his thinking that far into the future. But regardless of what the future might hold, first things must come first. He had given Gracie an option when he went away. When he returned, the option stated, she could have him for the taking. Would she exercise her rights under the option? It seemed she would, and without delay. On June 7, 1919, one week and day after Alvin York had returned from the war, Gracie foreclosed her option and became Mrs. Alvin C. York.
The marriage ceremony was performed by Governor A.H. Roberts of Tennessee in the presence of thousands of Tennesseans and well-wishers from surrounding states. The altar was the rock ledge under the spreading beech trees on the mountainside above the York home near their clandestine meeting place before Alvin went to war. Their wedding trip was a trip to Nashville two days after the wedding. On this trip Alvin presented his bride to the people of Tennessee and accepted for himself the official welcome home from the people of Tennessee.
Before his return to his native valley, Alvin York had many times expressed his desire to get back to the peace and quiet of his mountain home. Now he was back, but the quiet, uneventful life he had known before would be no more. The world followed him into his valley clamoring for his attention with all sorts of propositions and offers to do this or that for thousands of dollars. The kind of money that he was offered if he would commercialize his fame would have staggered his imagination two years before. He wrote at the time that "I knew if I hadn't been to war and hadn't been a doughboy they never would have offered me anything. I also knew I didn't go to war to make a heap or to go on the stage or in the movies. I went over there to help make peace. And there was peace now, so I didn't take their thirty pieces of silver and betray that there old uniform of mine." Then he continued: "I just wanted to be left alone to go back to my beginnings. The war was over. I had done my job and I had done it the best I could. So I figured I ought to be left alone and allowed to go back to the mountains where I belonged." His refusal to accept fabulous offers because they did not square with his conscience further endeared him to the American people.
But something had happened to Alvin York. He was not the same simple mountaineer who left the Valley of the Three Forks in November 1917. He had grown up, so to speak. He sensed a difference in himself. Everything at home was the same, but "I knew that I had changed," he wrote. "I knew I wasn't like I used to be. The big outside world I had been in and the things I had fought through had touched me up inside a powerful lot....I was sort of restless and full of dreams and wanted to be doing something and I didn't understand. So I sat out on the hillside trying to puzzle it out. Before the war I felt the mountains isolated us and kept us together as a God-fearing, God-loving people. They did that, too, but they did more than that. They kept out many of the good and worthwhile things like good roads, schools, libraries, up-to-date homes and modern farming methods."
The truth had dawned on Alvin York that isolation is never altogether good; that what keeps out the bad also keeps out the good. In addition it hems in those it would protect and stunts their growth by lack of contact with the outside world.
Alvin York, in the days after his return from the war, began to feel a kind of calling; a feeling that God had picked him to do a job and protected him while preparing him to do it. Along with his conviction that the isolation of the mountains had kept many good things from his people, he got the new idea that it was his mission in life to break down the barriers and bring education and enlightenment to his valley. He writes: "I kind of figured my trials and tribulations in the war had been to prepare me for doing just this work in the mountains. All of my suffering in having to go and kill were to teach me the value of human lives. All the temptations I went through were to strengthen my character."
Fired by what he believed to be a mandate from God to do something for his people, Alvin York conceived the idea of establishing schools for mountain children. This way he could save many a mountain boy from the embarrassment he had had to face many a time when he was forced to confess that "I'm just an ignorant mountain boy."
After he determined in his mind that the work he would do for his people would be in the field of education, he lost no time getting his program under way. Up to this time the people of America, and especially the people of Tennessee, had showered him with gifts as an expression of their appreciation for his military exploits and also his behavior in refusing to commercialize his name after returning from the war. Their gifts had included a substantial payment, though not all, on a 400-acre farm in the heart of the valley, livestock to stock the farm with, machinery and equipment, countless personal gifts and much more. He was in great demand as a public speaker for which he was paid liberal fees. But now that he had settled on establishing schools as his life's work, he announced that henceforth any gifts to be given him would be accepted as gifts for his schools. No longer would he accept personal gifts, and whatever fees he earned above expenses on the lecture tours would go into the school fund. This was a noble gesture but not a practical one. With a family of his own to support now, it was not long until he was mired so deeply in debt that it took him years to get out. Actually, he was probably never completely out of debt for the rest of his life. On top of his financial difficulties, his health began to fail, making it necessary that he curtail his speaking activities and adding still more to his living expenses.
But by this time he had managed to accumulate $10,000 in his school fund. At first his plan was to establish several small schools at strategic locations throughout the mountains, but this idea was discarded as impractical and the plan to build one large institution to be known as the York Industrial Institute was substituted for it. Raising the money to support such an institution, however, would be an enormous undertaking. Considering the deterioration of the health of Sgt. York and the fact that he would probably be unable to continue for very long the strenuous work of raising funds for the school, it was suggested that the state be asked to establish a state school at Jamestown in honor of Sgt. York. W.L. Wright, president of the Bank of Jamestown, has been credited with this suggestion. It met with the approval of Sgt. York, and in 1925 he appeared before a joint session of both houses of the Legislature to ask for passage of a bill establishing the York Agricultural Institute at Jamestown. After much discussion, a bill establishing the school was passed. It was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay on April 6, 1925. Under the law, Sgt. York put up the $10,000 he had, the State of Tennessee put up $50,000, and Fentress County put up $50,000. Now the York Agricultural Institute was legally established, but it still faced numerous difficulties, factional disputes, and legal entanglements before its doors were opened by court order on November 27, 1929. School had been held, however, the previous two years in the old Fentress County Poorhouse building across the road from the new school plant. York Agricultural Institute has grown enormously over the years. It still stands as a living monument to an American soldier who would trade his fame for nothing less than educational opportunity for his people.
With the York Agricultural Institute now established as a state institution, Sgt. York assumed its perpetuation was guaranteed. He then settled down to the life of a gentleman farmer. He spent some time in an advisory capacity with the school. The governing board had been changed from a board composed of private individuals to the State Board of Education plus Sgt. York. He had some voice in the management of the school but his influence was not decisive. He gradually spent less and less time working in connection with the school, and fund-raising trips were less and less frequent.
After the Agricultural Institute was on a solid footing and being maintained by the state, he turned his attention to another educational project. He had long dreamed of a Bible school to train young ministers and workers in the fundamentalist faith. Now he attempted to found such an institution on the Old York homeplace at Pall Mall. He even went so far as to erect a stone building in 1943 which was to have been the administration building of the York Bible School. But it never materialized as an organized institution. Poor health, lack of finances, and other handicaps under which the old soldier had to work proved too much for him. One or two revival meetings and a children's summer Bible school were held in the building. It has been abandoned now for many years.
In addition to his interest in education for mountain children, Alvin York was also deeply concerned with other civic problems confronting the people of the county. Good roads were one of the improvements for which he worked untiringly. He was well known and highly respected by most state administration over the years, and was instrumental through his influence in Nashville in getting the state to assume thousands of dollars of Fentress County road debts. Part of this was for the road on which he worked driving steel at $1.60 a day before he went to the army. It was later named the Alvin C. York Highway and is now U.S. 127, running north and south through the county.
York's farming, civic and community work, his church work, and raising a family of seven children occupied his time from the mid 1920's until the outbreak of World War II. Five sons (Alvin C. Junior, Edward Buxton, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson) and two daughters (Betsy Ross and Mary Alice) were born to Alvin York and Gracie Williams York. During these years between the two wars a major portion of his time had to be devoted to the "home front". Later, however, when war clouds began to hover over America a second time during his lifetime, he took to the road again to kindle patriotic fires all over America.
Alvin York spoke out for democracy and our vital need to break up the complacency that was threatening that democracy in every part of the country prior to World War II. He spoke in dozens of major cities and in numerous military bases to thousands of soldiers. After an impassioned plea for unity and preparedness in New York on July 31, 1941, he said, "It may sound strange for a man who fought in one dreadful war to talk like I'm talking tonight. They told us back in 1917-18 that we were fighting to save the world for democracy, and they had to argue me into it. Well, we did fight for democracy, and we saved it for ourselves for 23 years. Maybe now we've got to do it again."
The above speech was delivered four months before Pearl Harbor plunged us into World War II. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor in a speech broadcast from York Institute in Jamestown, York said, "Our hands are on the plow and we dare not, cannot turn back from our determination to rid the world of the Hitler menace. Life, not death; liberty, not enslavement; the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of sorrow and misery, will keep democracy fighting until victory is assured."
Wars are not won by men alone. Men must have materials with which to fight, and materials cost money. York worked hard to sell Americans on the importance of buying war bonds. In a radio program sponsored by the War Bond Office of the Eighth Corps area, he said, "This war is everybody's war. The sooner everybody is wholeheartedly behind it, the sooner it will be over. It will never be finished quick as long as we put more store by our private, personal, and selfish wants than our national liberty and democracy. And the way I see it, liberty and democracy are prizes that come only to people who fight to win them and then keep on fighting eternally to hold them. Though all of us may not be front line fighters, all of us can still help with the fight. We can buy war bonds to the limit just as those American fighting men keep fighting to the limit. Men couldn't win with their bare hands in 1918. Men can't win with their bare hands today."
Wherever there was work to be done to help win the war, Alvin York was there. A man was needed in Fentress County for the thankless task of member of the draft board. Would he accept? He would. He was made chairman and served through the war and for years afterward, giving up the post only after his health became so bad that it was impossible for him to continue.
He was a close friend of General Lewis B. Hershey who headed the Selective Service System, and on July 31, 1941 he appeared on a round table discussion over the Mutual Broadcasting System with General Hershey and Major General George B. Duncan, commander of the 82nd Division, to argue for preparedness. "If we want to keep our democracy we've got to be ready to fight for it," York said.
Though serving as chairman of the Fentress County Selective Service Local Board, Sgt. York did not approve all the policies of the Selective Service System. He strongly opposed the rejection of strong able-bodied men because they did not have enough education. This objection was based on his belief that planes, missiles, and atomic bombs are not enough. Alvin York firmly believed, and said so from many a platform, that "You can't fight a war without the foot soldier. You can't take territory and hold it without the foot soldier. You can't hold territory with missiles," the old soldier argued. Then he continued, "Draft Boards reject a lot of men who are physically able. Maybe a man hasn't got enough education to fly an airplane or a missile, but he can still be a good foot soldier. York even asked permission to lead a force of 5,000 picked men rejected for reasons of education, but the project failed because he could not pass the physical examination.
More than twenty years after his return from France as the most decorated soldier of World War I, York signed a contract with Warner Brothers for a moving picture telling the story of his life. The picture, in which Gary Cooper played the part of York, was called "Sergeant York," and was released in 1941. It made him some money but not a great deal. A report from Warner Brothers covering the period from the release of the picture to March 2, 1946 shows that York's share of revenue from the movie amounted to $169,449.84.
With this money York paid off most or possibly all of his debts. In the Farm Credit Manager in 1942 he says, "I'll bet I'm the first person who ever paid off a Federal Land Bank loan with money from a movie." And in the same magazine he pats himself on the back when he says, "It's the wise farmers who get their debts in shape for anything that might happen."
But a lot of the money from the movie went into the York Bible School at Pall Mall that never did materialize. In a story in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine for May 14, 1961 York is quoted as saying of the Bible School that "I put up all the money except $2,000. . . . . it cost about $40,000."
It was the revenue from the movie that got the old soldier into a peck of trouble with the income tax people. He paid what his lawyers said he owed, but the IRS billed him for more than $85,000 after they refused to allow deductions of donations to York Institute on the grounds that it was not a charitable institution since it was supported by the state. This $85,000 finally snowballed to $172,000 with penalty and interest and became absolutely impossible for him to pay after his third cerebral hemorrhage in February, 1954. He had suffered his first in 1949, but from 1954 until his death ten years later he was a complete invalid. The IRS finally agreed to accept $25,000 as full payment of his income tax debt. This amount was raised by public subscription from people all over America who sympathized with the now totally disabled old soldier.
The last ten years of Alvin York's life were spent in bed or occasionally in a wheelchair for short periods of time. These were years of pain and suffering, but he maintained a keen interest in his world until the end was near. For more than ten years his body had been wracked with pain and he was virtually blind. His doctors agreed that the complications which he suffered would have killed a man of lesser fortitude long before they killed Alvin York. He was hospitalized ten times in the last two years of his life. Finally the old soldier just faded away for "old Soldiers never die; they simply fade away." The end came for Sgt. Alvin C. York at the Veterans Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee on September 2, 1964, at the age of 76 years.
Governor Frank Clement suggested the body lie in state at the state capitol but the family declined, with thanks, and the body was taken home where the sun-room had been prepared for him and where thousands of people came to view this one they had loved and admired.
On Saturday, September 5, 1964, the body was taken to the little frame church at Pall Mall, known as York Chapel, where world-famous people, as well as the friends and plain folk of the valley, came to pay their respects to the fallen hero.
President Johnson's personal representative was General Matthew B. Ridgeway, who had been World War II commander of York's old division, the 82nd. Governor Frank Clement and former Governor Prentice Cooper, as well as many other military officials, came to attend the services. It was estimated that at least 8,000 people attended the funeral.
Ministers officiating were Dr. A. B. Mackey, past president of Trevecca College, Rev. R. D. Brown, a former Pastor and close friend of the family. Rev. R. G. Humble, General Superintendent of the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, delivered the farewell sermon.
Full military honors were furnished by units of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 82nd Division Band stood outside the Chapel to play Sgt. York's favorite hymns.
Sgt. York was laid to rest in the new section of the Wolf River Cemetery, only a stone's throw from the old Wolf River Methodist Church where he was saved on New Year's night, 1915. Gladys Williams was a dedicated teacher at York Institute for many years and was very interested in the life of Alvin C. York. She wrote this unpublished biography on his life.