Although it’s both enjoyable and important to focus on American Heroes from our current-day military, it’s also a must to remember those who have gone before. After all, time may pass and technology may change, but the warrior spirit of our men in combat remains forever unchanged. Perhaps one of the more fascinating stories of soldiers past is that of a pacificist-turned-hero, a man with a rocky childhood, a peace-loving young-adulthood, and a violent, hard-charging time in the military. Considering that it was his birthday month, it seems now is a good time to take a moment to remember the fantastic heroism of Sergeant Alvin York.
Alvin York was born on December 13, 1887, in Pall Mall, Tennessee, a little town in the Wolf River valley nestled up against the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He was born in a tiny two-room log cabin to Mary Brooks and William York as the third of 11 children. Through his mother he was continuing a family presence in Pall Mall; Mary Brooks’ great-grandfather Coonrod Pyle was one of the English settlers who settled Pall Mall years before. Alvin came from a family that wasn’t just poor, they were impoverished. His father worked as a blacksmith trying to bring some money in while all the men of the York family worked to bring food in for the family and their mother knitted their clothing. Survival trumped everything, including education, so each of the York boys received just nine months of schooling before dropping out to hunt and work the family farm.
When Alvin’s father died in 1911, Alvin himself was 24 years old and took on the responsibility of helping his mother raise his younger siblings. History agrees that he was an incredibly hard worker, spending his days first working on the railroad and then as a logger, but despite his steadfast devotion to helping his family, he was also a raging alcoholic. By all accounts his idea of a good time was getting fall-down drunk and picking a fight with the hopes it would become a brawl; there are multiple accounts of his many drunken fights when he was a young man. In fact, he fought so much he was arrested repeatedly.
There are two accounts of Alvin York’s conversion from hard-hitting drunk to pacifist. One claims he was in a particularly violent saloon brawl when his best friend was somehow killed – although not at his own hands – and another says he saw the light at a tent revival. Either way, he was converted and became a staunch pacifist. His mother had been a Protestant – and pacifist – all along, and Alvin had attended church with her over the years despite his drinking and brawling. The date of his conversion – yes, there’s an actual, historically-listed date – was January 1, 1915. He joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union, which was Protestant, and although that particular church didn’t list pacifism as one of their doctrines, they had their roots in opposing violence. The church was formed as a response to the Methodists’ support of the Civil War and made its opposition of violence quite clear. Alvin York was a pacifist, and it made sense that he would stick to his peaceful guns, so to speak, just as he’d dedicated himself to hard work and caring for his family. Of course, then the inevitable happened: the call to arms.
When he was 29, he had to register for the draft. The date was June 5, 1917, and on that day all men between 21 and 31 registered just as he did, because it was required. When Alvin reached the part of the form that asked “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” he wrote “Yes. Don’t want to fight.” It was his version of trying for conscientious objector status, and it failed. He did attempt an appeal, but back then the military didn’t really care what you thought as long as you were a (fairly) grown man with two hands, two legs, and the ability to breathe. And just like that, the young pacifist Alvin York was going to war.
Interestingly, once Alvin was in, he was in; he was going to stick to it, just as he’d worked his hardest all his life. Through his daily diary entries a great deal of information has been gleaned, among it the fact that Alvin refused to sign a document his pastor gave him that would have gotten him discharged from the Army based on religious grounds. Perhaps that refusal is not terribly shocking, but it is surprising that he refused to sign the document his mother gave him that would have granted him an exemption based on the very real fact that he was the sole provider for his mother and siblings. Along with those refusals he disclaimed the very idea that he’d attempted an exemption based on conscientious objector status. He may not have wanted to be in the military, but once he was in, he was going to be loyal to his last breath, because that was right.
He ended up in the U.S. Army and was immediately assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division. At the time the 82nd was new, having just been formed on August 5, 1917, and with Alvin York in its ranks, the 82nd ID was going to forge the first hard-hitting pages of what has become an impressive history. At its inception the 82nd ID was made up of brand-new soldiers from each of the then-48 states, so they created the now-famous AA shoulder-patch insignia, which stands for All-American.
Before his unit saw combat, Alvin spoke at length to his company and battalion commanders about his concerns. He would cite passages pertaining to violence and they would listen; in the end they managed to convince him to stay and gave him 10 days of leave to see his family before his deployment. Somehow, over those 10 days at home he became convinced it was not only okay but a good idea for him to actually fight, and he came back absolutely sure God would keep him safe during combat. Now he was ready for battle, and he was going to approach it as he did everything he set his mind to: with a laser focus and grim determination. Look out, Germans.
Alvin York and the others in his unit were sent to the lovely French countryside, land of luxurious meals, decadent wine – no, wait, that’s not the France the men of World War I saw. It was the fall of 1918; it was the height of World War I, and Northern France was center-stage for some of the bloodiest, deadliest fights the Americans would see.
Although there are many accounts of Alvin York’s bravery, our focus today is on October 8, 1918. On that day York’s unit was tasked with capturing the Decauville Railway. Their actions were part of the Allied Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a battle that stretched over 47 days and involved 1.2 million American soldiers, making it the largest battle ever in U.S. history. The Meuse-Argonne was a vital part of the final Allied offensive: if the soldiers could capture the railroad station, they would cut off the support needed by the Germans to maintain their hold on France. October 8th was part of what’s known as Second Phase, and Alvin York was going to make history.
As the men moved through the countryside towards their objective, a nearby ridgeline suddenly came to life with the heavy thrum of machine-gun fire. Not one, not two – not ten – but 30 machine gun nests had been skillfully concealed, and once the American soldiers came in range, the Germans unleashed hell’s fury on them in the form of hot lead. That first hail of gunfire did its job, too, nearly wiping out the American troops as they scrambled for safety. Alvin’s platoon was just far back enough to still be intact and so was ordered to move into a flanking position so they could attack the Germans from the rear. At first it seemed to being going well; they moved into position, spotted a German trench, and overran it in no time. The men killed two Germans and took the rest prisoner, and they were probably feeling pretty confident when everything changed.
On the ridge behind them an unidentified German screamed out an order, and the susurrus of gunfire ceased. In a second that must have stretched out forever, the 17 American soldiers in Alvin’s platoon watched in horror as 32 German machine guns turned to focus on them, and them alone. Gunfire tore into the soldiers; nine were killed immediately, seven dove into the nearby German trench, and one remained standing: Alvin York.
It was his moment; he just didn’t know it yet. Alvin was a phenomenal marksman, and he was about to prove he could perform even under enormous pressure. Mounting his rifle to his shoulder, Alvin began to exchange fire with the Germans. 32 machine guns against one M1917 Enfield rifle. He stood tall, demonstrating some seriously badass sharpshooting skills, and, he would later say, yelling at the Germans to come down and face him.
Of course, he was bound to run out of ammunition eventually, and he did. Right about that time a group of six German soldiers decided to fix bayonets and charge him – undoubtedly furious that one American soldier was doing serious damage to their own forces. Left without any more rounds for his M1917 Enfield, Alvin drew his Colt M1911 and prepared to deal death, .45 caliber style.
“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. 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.” Alvin York, about his stand against the Germans with his Colt M1911
He shot them all, all six of them, as they charged him, rifles raised, bayonets fixed. When it was over, a German major who had been watching the goings-on (probably with a mixture of fury and awe) decided it was time to admit when they’d lost, even if it meant losing to a single American. Raising his hands in surrender, he told Alvin “If you don’t shoot anymore, I will make them give up.” Despite the bloody ass-kicking Alvin had just doled out, he was still a peaceful man at heart – well, that and he was pretty much out of ammo for both guns – so he graciously accepted.
As Alvin led the surrendered German Major back to his men to make the surrender official, it may have dawned on the German that he’d just surrendered to one guy and seven more hiding in a trench (the other men hadn’t fired a single shot during this time). When he saw how many Americans there were he turned to Alvin and asked just how many men the sharpshooter actually had, to which Alvin replied, “I got a-plenty.” The reality was he didn’t need “a-plenty” he just needed his own grit and grim determination.
As the dust settled it became apparent the Tennessean had cut down a whopping 28 Germans all by himself and had captured 128 enlisted men and 4 officers as well as the 32 machine guns. He got through the entire ordeal without suffering even the tiniest injury. It seems his faith was well-placed indeed.
Thanks to Alvin York’s actions on that day, which resulted in a machine-gun regiment being entirely removed from the fight, the 77th Division managed to capture the railroad that very night. At first he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, but an investigation months later resulted in that award being upgraded to the Medal of Honor. In addition, the French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor and Italy awarded him the Croce di Guerra al Merito and Montenegro, which was its War Medal. Throughout his service, Alvin York would be decorated almost 50 times for countless acts of bravery.
No one noticed Alvin’s courage – not even those in his home state of Tennessee – until the Saturday Evening Post picked up the story in April 1919. As a result the Tennessee Society arranged for a more extravagant homecoming celebration that included five days of sight-seeing furlough. And then, just one week after arriving home, Alvin married Gracie Williams. He refused to profit from his actions – and he could have made a substantial amount of money for appearances, interviews, and endorsements – proving what he was made of yet again.
Alvin York was a World War I American Hero of unparalleled courage under machine gun fire. It is thanks to men such as Alvin that we have remained a free nation as long as we have, and it is because of men such as Alvin we continue to enjoy our many individual freedoms. All too many Americans seem to forget how much is owed to men like Alvin York, and so today we’d like to ask, will you remember?
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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