In 1941 the film Sergeant York was released. A biopic on the life of America’s greatest hero of WWI, it brought together two American originals: Alvin C. York and the actor Gary Cooper.
York arrived in this world on December 3, 1887, the third of the eleven children of William and Mary York. He was born into rural poverty. Although both of his parents were quite hard-working, the Yorks lived in a two-room log cabin at a subsistence level. None of the York children received more than nine-months education, as their labor was desperately needed to farm the few hard scrabble acres that the Yorks owned and to hunt for food to feed the large family.
When his father died in 1911, Alvin took on the responsibility of helping his mother raise his younger siblings, and supporting the family. Alvin early developed the reputation as both a hard-worker during the day and a drunken hell-raiser at night, something that constantly distressed his mother, a Christian and a pacifist.
In the film, York is shown being converted after a lightning bolt stops him as he is on his way to murder a man who had cheated him. Actually, York’s conversion was the result of a number of factors, including the beating to death of a friend of York’s in a bar fight, his mother’s influence and York falling in love with a Christian girl, Gracie Williams, the love of his life who he would marry in 1919, and who he would remain married to until his death in 1964.
York’s conversion was total. He gave up drinking, fighting and swearing. He read the Bible cover to cover and did his very best to live by its precepts.
With America’s entry into World War I, York sought to avoid military service by claiming conscientious objector status. His claim was denied because the Protestant sect he was a member of, the Church of Christ in Christian Union, did not specifically forbid its members from military service in war. After he was drafted into the Army, he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking to obtain a discharge for him, and similar documents provided by his mother requesting his discharge on the grounds that he was the sole support of her and his brothers and sisters. Although resolved to stay in the Army, his conscience was still in turmoil about the question of killing in war.
“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.”
After his training he went to Europe as an infantryman in Company G of the 328th Regiment, part of the 82nd Division, also known as the All-American Division. A lifetime of hunting to feed himself and his family had made York a deadly shot and he had been promoted to Corporal to help train the other men in his platoon in marksmanship. York began keeping a diary on the day he received his draft notice, so we have his contemporaneous notes on his experiences during the war.
In the fall of 1918, York’s regiment participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American operation of the war. On October 8, 1918, York’s regiment took part in an attack to seize German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chehery, France. The attack encountered savage German resistance as York noted in his diary:
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.
Sergeant Bernard Early was ordered to take 16 men including York and work his way around the German position to take out the machine guns. Early and his men overran a German headquarters, when German machine guns opened up killing six of the Americans, and wounding three others, including Sergeant Early. York, the reluctant soldier, now found himself in command of the remaining seven soldiers.
The film is accurate in its depiction of how York silenced several machine guns single-handedly.
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.
By the end of the engagement York had taken out several machine guns and he and his men returned to the US lines with an incredible 132 German prisoners.
York expressed no pride in what he had done. He viewed it as a necessary task, but wanted no glory from it. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Croix de Guerre from France, and promoted to Sergeant.
A national hero, York, a poor man, could have cashed in and made millions from endorsements. He refused all offers, intent only on returning home, marrying Gracie and resuming his life. He also came back with a burning ambition: to found a school to give a proper education to the children of his county, and aid them in escaping poverty. York realized this ambition in 1926 when he founded the Alvin C. York Institute. York ran the school from 1929-1937, when financial pressures from the Great Depression caused him to transfer the school to the State of Tennessee. The school is still in operation, and is ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country.
York was content to lead the remainder of his life in his county, tending to his family, his business and worshiping God, his wartime heroics a fading memory. However, the advent of a new war in Europe changed his life and introduced him to the matinée idol, Gary Cooper, a man both like and unlike York. Part II next week.