York, Alvin Cullum
YORK, ALVIN CULLUM
Alvin C. York was born the third child of eleven to William and Mary Brooks York in Pall Mall, Tennessee. York's family eked out an existence in a two-room cabin. York was raised as a country boy who had only attended school for nine months. In 1917, York's world was changed forever when he was drafted into the American Army. York resisted because of religious beliefs; his Church of Christ in Christian Union denounced killing. But because his church was not recognized by the draft board as a legitimate denomination, York could not be excused from service as a conscientious objector.
Sergeant Alvin C. York's amazing exploit near Chatel-Chehery in the Argonne Forest during World War I captured American imagination. On the foggy, rain soaked morning of October 8, 1918, York and seventeen doughboys received daunting orders to secure the Decauville Railroad in an attempt to disrupt German supply lines. Things went terribly awry, however, and the soldiers from Company G, 328th infantry, of the 82nd Division, found themselves behind enemy lines pinned down by withering machine-gun fire. York's best friend, Murray Savage, and eight other Americans lay dead. Acting Sergeant Bernard Early, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, ordered York to silence the machine-gun nest. Armed only with his rifle, pistol, and a profound belief that God would protect him, Alvin C. York used his formidable skills as a marksman to take out the gun. When the smoke cleared, York and the seven survivors captured 132 German prisoners and delivered them to U.S. authorities. News of the event made York a household name and the most popular American hero of the war.
While the near mythic feat is worthy of awe and respect, it is not the way "Big 'un," the redheaded mountaineer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, wanted to be remembered. York's life, though defined for most by Gary Cooper's Academy Award winning portrayal in the Warner Bros. film Sergeant York (1941), was more interesting than the film character, especially after the war. When York returned to New York in May, 1919, he found himself the object of the city's attention. A ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue and a suite of rooms at the Waldorf Astoria awaited him. Influential people offered him outstanding sums of money for endorsements of products, public appearances, and shooting
demonstrations, all of which York turned down because he believed no one should profit from taking the lives of others. He returned home intent on two things: marrying Gracie Williams, and improving education in his region. As events heated up in the Europe during the 1930s, York initially spoke out against American intervention. He joined the Emergency Peace Campaign organized by the eminent churchman Harry Emerson Fosdick. From 1936 to 1939, York traveled the country condemning the first World War while promoting Progressive reforms. His stance changed, however, as a result of his relationship with Warner Bros., a Hollywood film company. In 1940, he agreed to have Warner Bros. make a film of his life.
Through his association with Warner Bros., York became a member of the Fight For Freedom Committee (FFF) created in direct opposition to the isolationist (and some would say pro-Nazi) America First Committee. In his capacity as a spokesman for the FFF, York found himself diametrically opposed to the stance of another great American hero, Charles Lindbergh. The two men squared off against each other through 1940 and 1941, representing the two poles of American thought regarding the war in Europe. Lindbergh argued that the Nazis posed no threat to the United States. Lindbergh claimed that the British, Hollywood, and Jews were agitating for war. York argued that the Nazis threatened freedom, democracy, and the American way of life.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Sergeant York was used as a recruiting tool. The movie about his World War I heroics won two Academy Awards. York tried to reenlist, but was prevented by poor health. Instead, he worked in the Signal Corps to boost American morale. He visited training camps, demonstrated his shooting skills, and signed autographs. York also had a weekly newspaper column, "Sergeant York Says," and broadcast a weekly radio program, "Tennessee Americans," over the Mutual Broadcasting System throughout the war. He reinforced his image as hero and patriot to the war effort.
When the war ended, troubles awaited him. His mythic image did not shield him from the Internal Revenue Service, which demanded taxes on revenue from the movie. Obesity, stress, and other factors led to a stroke in 1948, the first in a series of several strokes that would leave York, still hounded by the IRS, bedridden for the last ten years of his life. Friends, neighbors, and the American Legion launched a campaign to bail him out of his debt. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy persuaded the IRS to reduce his debt, take a portion of the money raised, and allow the Sergeant to live out the remainder of his life in dignity. Less than a year later, a frail and exhausted York died. He was buried in the cemetery of the Wolf Creek Methodist Church with full military honors.
Birdwell, Michael E. Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Cooke, James J. The All-Americans at War: The 82nd Division in the Great War, 1917–1918. West Port, Connecticut: Praeger, 1999.
Lee, David D. Sergeant York: An American Hero. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Michael E. Birdwell