Sgt. Alvin Cullum York

Alvin Cullum York was born in a two room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887,[2] the third of eleven children born to Mary Elizabeth Brooks (8 August 1866 - 21 May 1943)[3] and William Uriah York (15 May 1863 – 17 November 1911).[4] William Uriah York was born in Jamestown, Tennessee, to Uriah York and Eliza Jane Livingston, both travelers from Buncombe County, North Carolina.[5] Mary Elizabeth York was born in Pall Mall to William Brooks and Nancy Pyle, and was the great-granddaughter of Coonrod Pyle, an English settler who settled Pall Mall. William York and Mary Brooks married on December 25, 1881, and had eleven children. The York children were, in order: Henry Singleton, Joseph Marion, Alvin Cullum, Samuel John, Albert, Hattie, George Alexander, James Preston, Lillian Mae, Robert Daniel, and Lucy Erma.[5] The York family is of English and Ulster Scots ancestry.[6] The York family resided in the Indian Creek area of Fentress County.[5] The family was impoverished, with William York working as a blacksmith to supplement the family income. The men of the York family harvested their own food, while the mother knitted all family clothing.[5] The York sons attended school for only nine months[2] and withdrew from education because William York wanted his sons to help him work the family farm and hunt small game to feed the family.[5]

When William York died in November 1911, his son Alvin helped his mother in raising his younger siblings.[5] Alvin was the oldest sibling still residing in the county, since his two older brothers had married and relocated. To supplement the family income, York first worked in Harriman, Tennessee,[2] first in railroad construction and then as a logger. By all accounts, he was a very skilled worker who was devoted to the welfare of his family. York was also a violent alcoholic prone to fighting in saloons and accumulated several arrests within the area.[2] His mother, a member of a pacifist Protestant denomination, tried to persuade York to change his ways without success.

Despite his history of drinking and fighting, York attended church regularly and often led the hymn singing. A revival meeting at the end of 1914 led him to a conversion experience on January 1, 1915. His congregation was the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a Protestant denomination that shunned secular politics and disputes between Christian denominations.[7] This church had no specific doctrine of pacificism but had been formed in reaction to the Methodists' support for the Civil War and now opposed all forms of violence.[8] In a lecture later in life, he reported his reaction to the outbreak of World War I: "I was worried clean through. I didn't want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible."[9] On June 5, 1917, at the age of 29, Alvin York registered for the draft as all men between 21 and 31 years of age did on that day. When he registered for the draft, he answered the question "Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?" by writing "Yes. Don't Want To Fight."[10] When his initial claim for conscientious objector status was denied, he appealed.[11]

In World War I, conscientious objector status did not exempt one from military duty. Such individuals could still be drafted and were given assignments that did not conflict with their anti-war principles. In November 1917, while York's application was considered, he was drafted and began his army service at Camp Gordon in Georgia.[12]

From the day he registered for the draft until he returned from the war on May 29, 1919, York kept a diary of his activities. In his diary, York wrote that he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking a discharge from the Army on religious grounds and refused to sign similar documents provided by his mother asserting a claim of exemption as the sole support of his mother and siblings. He also disclaimed ever having been a conscientious objector.[13]

World War I

York was drafted into the United States Army and served in Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Deeply troubled by the conflict between his pacifism and his training for war, he spoke at length with his company commander, Captain Edward Courtney Bullock Danforth (1894–1973) of Augusta, Georgia and his battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton (1880–1949) of Providence, Rhode Island, a devout Christian himself. Citing Biblical passages about violence ("He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one." "Render unto Caesar ..." "... if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight."), they forced York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. Granted a 10-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe, as committed to his new mission as he had been to pacifism During an attack by his battalion to capture German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, France, on October 8, 1918, York's actions earned him the Medal of Honor.[15] He recalled:[16]

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. Under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early, four non-commissioned officers, including recently promoted Cpl. York,[17] and thirteen privates were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the machine guns. The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. Early's men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans: Corp. Murray Savage, and Pvts. Maryan E. Dymowski, Ralph E. Weiler, Fred Waring, William Wins and Walter E. Swanson, and wounding three others, Sgt. Early, Corp. William S. Cutting (aka Otis B. Merrithew), and Pvt. Mario Muzzi. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining U.S. soldiers, Pvts. Joseph Kornacki, Percy Beardsley, Feodor Sok, Thomas G. Johnson, Michael A. Saccina, Patrick Donohue, and George W. Wills. As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns. York recalled:[18]

328th Infantry Regiment of 82nd Division advances in preparation to capture Hill 223 on October 7, 1918.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.

York at the hill where his actions earned him the Medal of Honor, three months after the end of World War I, February 7, 1919During the assault, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him with fixed bayonets. York had fired all the rounds in his M1917 Enfield rifle,[19] but drew his .45 Colt automatic pistol[20] and shot all six soldiers before they could reach him.[21]

German First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted.[22] By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.[23]

York was promptly promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. A few months later, following a thorough investigation, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented to York by the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. The French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. Italy awarded him its Croce di Guerra al Merito and Montenegro its War Medal.[24][25] He eventually received nearly 50 decorations.[25] His Medal of Honor citation reads:[26]

After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns. Of his deeds, York said to his division commander, General Lindsey, in 1919: A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do

Homecoming and fame

York's heroism went unnoticed in the United States press, even in Tennessee, until the publication of the April 26, 1919 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which had a circulation in excess of 2 million. In an article titled "The Second Elder Gives Battle", journalist George Patullo, who had learned of York's story while touring battlefields earlier in the year, laid out the themes that have dominated York's story ever since: the mountaineer, his religious faith and skill with firearms, patriotic, plainspoken and unsophisticated, an uneducated man who "seems to do everything correctly by intuition."[28] In response, the Tennessee Society, a group of Tennesseans living in New York City, arranged celebrations to greet York upon his return to the United States, including a 5-day furlough to allow for visits to New York City and Washington, D.C. York arrived in Hoboken, N.J. on May 22, stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, and attended a formal banquet in his honor. He toured the subway system in a special car before continuing to Washington, where the House of Representatives gave him a standing ovation and he met Secretary of War Baker and the President's secretary Joe Tumulty, as President Wilson was still in Paris.[29]

York proceeded to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he was discharged from the service, and then to Tennessee for more celebrations. He got off the train in Crossville TN. He had been home for barely a week when, on June 7, 1919, York and Gracie Loretta Williams (February 7, 1900 - September 27, 1984)[30] were married by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts in Pall Mall. More celebrations followed the wedding, including a week-long trip to Nashville where York accepted a special medal awarded by the state.[31]

York refused many offers to profit from his fame, including thousands of dollars offered for appearances, newspaper articles, and movie rights to his life story. Companies wanted him to appear in advertisements or to pose with their products. Instead he lent his name to various charitable and civic causes.[32] To support economic development, he campaigned to get Tennessee to build a road to service his native region, succeeding when a highway through the mountains was completed in the mid-1920s and named Alvin C. York Highway.[33] The Nashville Rotary organized the purchase by public subscription of a 400-acre (1.6 km2) farm, the one gift that York accepted. It proved not to be the fully equipped farm he was promised, and he had to borrow money to stock it. He subsequently lost money in the farming depression that followed the war. Then the Rotary, which was purchasing the property in instalments, failed to make the payments, leaving York to pay himself. In 1921 he had to ask for help, resulting in an extended discussion of his finances in the press, some of it sharply critical. Debt in itself was a trial: "I could get used to most any kind of hardship, but I'm not fitted for the hardship of owing money." Only an appeal to Rotary Clubs nationwide and an account of York's plight in the New York World brought in the required contributions by Christmas 1921.[34]

In the 1920s, York formed the Alvin C. York Foundation with the mission of increasing education opportunities in his region of Tennessee. Board members included the area's congressman, Cordell Hull, who later became secretary of state under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo, and Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts. Plans called for a non-sectarian institution providing vocational training to be called the York Agricultural Institute. York concentrated on fund-raising, though he disappointed audiences who wanted to hear about the Argonne when he instead explained that "I occupied one space in a fifty mile front. I saw so little it hardly seems worthwhile discussing it. I'm trying to forget the war in the interest of the mountain boys and girls that I grew up among."[35] He fought first to win financial support from the state and county, then battled local leaders about the school's location. Refusing to compromise, he resigned and developed plans for a rival York Industrial School. After a series of lawsuits he gained control of the original institution and was its president when it opened in December 1929. As the Great Depression deepened, the state government failed to provide promised funds, and York mortgaged his farm to fund bus transportation for students. Even after he was ousted as president in 1936 by political and bureaucratic rivals, he continued to donate money.[36][37]

During World War II, York attempted to re-enlist in the Army,[38][39] however at fifty-four years of age, overweight,[38] near-diabetic,[40] and with evidence of arthritis, he was denied enlistment as a combat soldier. Instead, he was commissioned a major in the Army Signal Corps[38][40] and he toured training camps and participated in bond drives in support of the war effort, usually paying his own travel expenses. Gen. Matthew Ridgway later recalled that York "created in the minds of farm boys and clerks...the conviction that an aggressive soldier, well trained and well armed, can fight his way out of any situation." He also raised funds for war-related charities, including the Red Cross. He served on his county draft board, and when literacy requirements forced the rejection of large numbers of Fentress County men, he offered to lead a battalion of illiterates himself, saying they were "crack shots."[41] Although York served during the war with the honorary rank of Colonel in the Army Signal Corps[38][40] and as a Colonel with the Seventh Infantry of the Tennessee State Guard,[42] newspapers continued to refer to him as "Sgt. York."[43]

Legacy and film story twice in the 1920s, York cooperated with journalists in telling his life story. York allowed Nashville-born freelance journalist Sam Cowan to see his diary and submitted to interviews. The resulting 1922 biography focused on York’s Appalachian background, describing his upbringing among the "purest Anglo-Saxons to be found today," emphasizing popular stereotypes without bringing the man to life.[44][45] A few years later, York contacted a publisher about an edition of his war diary, but the publisher wanted additional material to flesh out the story. Then Tom Skeyhill, an Australian-born veteran of the Gallipoli campaign,[46] visited York in Tennessee and the two became friends. On York's behalf, Skeyhill wrote an "autobiography" in the first person and was credited as the editor of Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary. With a preface by Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War in World War I, it presented a one-dimensional York supplemented with tales of life in the Tennessee mountains.[47] Reviews noted that York only promoted his life story in the interest of funding educational programs: "Perhaps York's bearing after his famous exploit in the Argonne best reveals his native greatness....He will not exploit himself except for his own people. All of which gives his book an appeal beyond its contents."[48]

The mountaineer myth that Cowan and Skeyhill promoted reflected York's own beliefs. In a speech at the 1939 New York World's Fair, he said:[49] We, the descendants of the pioneer long hunters of the mountains, have been called Scotch-Irish and pure Anglo-Saxon, and that is complimentary, I reckon. But we want the world to know that we are Americans. The spiritual environment and our religious life in the mountains have made our spirit wholly American, and that true pioneer American spirit still exists in the Tennessee mountains. Even today, I want you all to know, with all the clamor of the world and its evil attractions, you still find in the little humble log cabins in the Tennessee mountains that old-fashioned family altar of prayer–the same that they used to have in grandma's and grandpa's day–which is the true spirit of the long hunters. We in the Tennessee mountains are not transplanted Europeans; every fiber in our body and every emotion in our hearts is American. For many years, York employed a secretary, Arthur S. Bushing, who wrote the lectures and speeches York delivered. Bushing prepared York's correspondence as well. Like the works of Cowan and Skeyhill, words commonly ascribed to York, though doubtless representing his thinking, were often composed by professional writers.[50]

York had refused several times to authorize a film version of his life story.[51] Finally, in 1940, as York was looking to finance an interdenominational Bible school, he yielded to a persistent Hollywood producer and negotiated the contract himself.[52] In 1941, the movie Sergeant York directed by Howard Hawks with Gary Cooper in the title role told about his life and Medal of Honor action.[53] The screenplay included much fictitious material though it was based on York's Diary.[54][55] The marketing of the film included a visit by York to the White House where FDR praised the film.[56] Some of the response to the film divided along political lines, with advocates of preparedness and aid to Great Britain enthusiastic ("Hollywood's first solid contribution to the national defense," said Time) and isolationists calling it "propaganda" for the administration.[57][58] It received 11 Oscar nominations and won two, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for Cooper. It was the highest-grossing picture of 1941.[54][59] York's earnings from the film, about $150,000 in the first 2 years as well as later royalties, resulted in a decade-long battle with the Internal Revenue Service.[60] York eventually built part of his planned Bible school, which hosted 100 students until the late 1950s.[61]