December 13, 2012
“It’s over; let’s just forget about it,” Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York told reporters when asked about his exploits that were cited in his award.
Alvin Cullum York was born in a small log cabin to impoverished parents on Dec. 13, 1887, near Pall Mall, Tenn., near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He was the third of 11 children, and the family eked out a living in Fentress County. The demands to feed the family, by hunting game and farming, came before formal education, York, and his seven brothers, attended only nine months of school.
His father died in 1911, and Alvin, as the oldest child still living in Fentress County, helped his mother raised the eight children left at home.
Alvin was known as a hell-raiser enjoying the “blind tiger” establishments along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. “Blind tigers” were places that served illegal alcohol and provided gambling, also illegal. York and his friends had a reputation as brawlers at these places, but in 1914, when his good friend Everett Delk was killed in a fight at a borderline bar in Static, Kentucky, York reassessed his life.
He attended a Church of Christ in Christian Union (CCCU) revival held by H.H. Russell, that set York on a different path. He converted, and gave up some of his previous favorite past times, drinking, gambling, and fighting; he joined the church choir, and adopted the church teachings that forbade dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, and popular literature. The church did not have a specific pacifist doctrine, but one of the central reasons the church splintered from the Methodist Church was because that church supported the Civil War. The CCCU opposed all forms of violence.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, all men from age 21 to 30 had to register for the draft. On June 5, 1917, York received his draft notice; he was 29. On his draft registration questionnaire, “Do you claim an exemption from the draft?” York answered, “Yes. Don’t want to fight.”
Later, when he was a hero, he was asked about World War I. "I was worried clean through. I didn't want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible."
He enlisted and joined the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. He talked with his commanders about his doubts, about the morality of this war, but when he returned from leave, he was committed that his role was to fight in the war.
On Oct. 8, 1918, he was one of 17 men under the command of Sargent Bernard Early charged to take control of a railroad in the Meuse-Argonne sector. They wound up behind German lines in a fire fight; the German force surrendered, though when they discovered it was only 17 Americans, machine guns fired on the soldiers. Nine Americans were killed, Early was hit multiple times, and Corporal William Cutting told York to silence the machine guns.
He killed at least nine German soldiers, 25 died in total, and the surviving Americans captured 132 men. For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor as well as several other medals, and the story of his exploits captured the imagination of journalists; George Pattullo, who first told the story in the Saturday Evening Post, focused on York’s religious background in his “The Second Elder Gives Battle,” referring to York's status in his home congregation.
York was not impressed with his fame. He convinced Cordell Hull to help him get home and avoid the publicity tours the Army wanted. York eschewed celebrity, and only wanted to help introduce Fentress County into the modern world. He created a school, the York Institute, and helped raise money for it, and for other improvements that would raise the standard of living in his rural home county.
As World War II approached, York was finally persuaded to cooperate in a telling of his story. “Sargent York,” starring Gary Cooper, is how most Americans remember him.
York died on Sep. 2, 1964. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he asked that it be for his efforts to improve basic education.