Alvin C. York
Alvin C. York
December 13, 1887
Pall Mall, Tennessee
September 2, 1964
Farmer, mountain man, humanitarian
The story of Sergeant Alvin C. York embodies one of the great contradictions of war. If killing is wrong, how can society justify war? Further, how can nations convince good people to suspend the normal rules of civilization during wartime so that they can kill the enemy? A religious man who had sincerely tried to become a better person through devotion to his church, York had never been more than fifty miles from his home when he was sent to fight in France during World War I. Although he was a most unwilling soldier, York used the shooting skills he had developed in the mountains of Tennessee to become one of the most famous heroes of the war. However, York was not proud of his talent for killing, and he never wanted fame for it. He spent his life after the war trying to create some lasting good for the mountain people he loved.
A Hardscrabble Life
Alvin Cullum York was born on December 13, 1887, in a two-room cabin in the Wolf River valley in Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains, a region known for its poverty, isolation, and fiercely independent inhabitants. His parents, William and Mary York, had eleven children and worked hard to make a living from the family farm. William York added to their income by working as a blacksmith. In this lean existence, hunting was not a sport but an important part of survival, and at a very young age little Alvin went out regularly with his father, learning the sharp shooting skills that would put meat on the dinner table. He learned how to kill a turkey with a single shot to the head, and he supplemented the family income by winning local turkey shoots and other contests.
Though he developed rifle skills and learned about farming the rocky mountain soil, York received very little schooling because he could not be spared long from his chores. For a few years he went to the tiny local school when he could, but he only got through third grade, attending classes for a total of nine months. York was never able to read well, and he regretted his lack of education. Giving other mountain children the chance to learn would become his mission when he was older.
The Taming of the Roughneck
In 1911, York's father died, leaving York with even more responsibility for taking care of the family. Along with farming and hunting to put food on the table, York earned a little money as a day laborer working with railroad or highway crews. It was at this time that York began to display many bad habits. He drank and gambled and spent his free time in rowdy bars, a combination of activities that often ended in fights.
After a few years of wild, drunken escapades, York found several reasons to change his life. He was at heart a serious man, and he knew that the rowdy life would lead him into trouble, perhaps jail or even death. His best friend, Everett Delk, was killed in a barroom fight, and York's mother was terribly worried that the same thing might happen to her son. Perhaps the most important factor in York's change of lifestyle was his growing attachment to a young neighbor woman, Gracie Williams.
York had never been much of a churchgoer, but Gracie took him to her church, the Church of Christ in Christian Union. York was "saved," that is, he had a spiritual experience in which he felt that God spoke to him, and in 1914 he became an active member of the church. The Church of Christ in Christian Union was a strict sect (a religious organization), for bidding drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, and swearing, and it was opposed to war or violence of any kind. By 1917, York was second elder, a high office in the church, and his roughneck life was behind him for good.
The Backwoods Hero
In 1917, the United States entered World War I, and York was drafted. He applied for conscientious objector status, which is sometimes granted to those whose religious convic tions do not permit them to fight. But because York's church was small and not recognized nationally, his application was refused. Torn between his religious belief that war was wrong and his loyalty to his country, York left Tennessee on Novem ber 15 to report for duty at Camp Gordon, Georgia.
The officers who trained York were amazed by his skill with a rifle. Though he refused to practice by shooting at targets shaped like human beings, he could hit his mark at five hundred yards. He was assigned to a combat unit, Company G in the Three-hundred-twenty-eighth Infantry attached to the Eighty-second Division. York was still very hesitant about killing people in combat, however, and his commanding officers, Captain Edward Danforth and Major George Edward Buxton, worked hard to convince him that the war was a holy cause and that God was on the side of the Allies. On June 27, 1918, the Tennessee mountain man arrived in France.
The most famous moment of York's life came a few months later. On October 8, his platoon was ordered to capture a German machine-gun installation in the Argonne Forest in northern France. The American platoon sneaked up on the German troops; the Germans appeared to surrender, but then quickly signaled another group of German soldiers to open fire. Almost all of the Americans were killed. Left with only a handful of men, York used his rifle to pick off the German machine gunners, just the way he used to shoot turkeys through the head on his mountain hunting trips. When the Germans, infuriated, sent five men with bayonets to kill the American marksman, York calmly shot each of them, starting with the one in the back so that the men in front would not know what was happening—another turkey-hunting technique.
Stunned by the sudden defeat of their machine guns, the Germans surrendered their position. On the march back to the Allied lines, York gathered more prisoners for a total of 132. Almost singlehandedly, he had left 25 Germans dead and 35 machine guns disabled. He was promoted to sergeant and received many medals, including the French Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre, the Italian Croce de Guerra, and the American Medal of Honor. However, York was not happy about what he had done. The day after the battle, he took a small platoon back to search for survivors. At the site, he knelt and prayed for all the Americans and Germans who had died there.
Back to "Normal"
Back in the United States, the heroic adventure of York had captured the public imagination. The drama of the simple Tennessee mountain man who had defeated a regiment of Germans
appealed to Americans who were sad and cynical about the war. On his return home in May 1919, York was over-whelmed by attention from the American press and public. But he was not proud of having killed during the war, and he did not want to be a public figure. He went home to the Wolf River valley and married Gracie Williams. He remained active in the Church of Christ in Christian Union, and in 1926 he founded the Alvin C. York Institute, a school for the young people in his home county of Fentress. To raise money for the school, he traveled around the country speaking about his experiences in the war.
In 1941, in spite of his church's ban on movies, York agreed to a film version of his life, starring the famous actor Gary Cooper (1901–1961) as York. The movie made York famous to a new generation and gained support for the nation's entry into World War II (1939–45). The film and his speaking engagements provided York with a good income, but he had never learned about handling money. He gave much of it away, made bad investments, and was often in debt; but his community and supporters around the country rallied many times to help him, Gracie, and their seven children. In 1954, York had a stroke and never fully recovered. He died in 1964 of another stroke, at the Nashville Veterans' Hospital, surrounded by his family.
The Alvin C. York Institute still exists as part of the Tennessee public school system. The success of this institute made York more proud than the fame he had won shooting his rifle in the Argonne Forest.
For More Information
Lee, David D. Sergeant York: An American Hero. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Perry, John. Sgt. York: His Life, Legend, and Legacy: The Remarkable Untold Story of Sergeant Alvin C. York. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman, 1997.
Skeyhill, Thomas John. Sergeant York, Last of the Long Hunters. Philadelphia, Penn., and Chicago: J. C. Winston, 1930.
York, Alvin Cullum. Sergeant York, His Own Life Story and War Diary. Ed. Tom Skeyhill. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928.
Sergeant York. Produced by Jesse L. Laksy and Hal B. Wallis and directed by Howard Hawks (Warner Brothers Pictures, 1941). Twentieth Century Fox Video, 1982. Videocassette.
"Alvin C. York." [Online] http://www.alvincyork.org (accessed May 2001).
"The Life of Alvin C. York." [Online] http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/York/history.html (accessed May 2001).
Conscientious Objectors: Those Who Refuse to Kill
As long as there have been wars, there have been those who think war is wrong and do not wish to participate. In modern times, these people have been called conscientious objectors (COs), meaning that their sense of what is morally right (conscience) forces them to object. COs have been treated with varying degrees of harshness at different times, but in the United States it has traditionally been assumed that someone whose religious or moral beliefs forbid fighting in a war should not have to fight. Sometimes COs are given a noncombat role in a war, such as driving an ambulance. Sometimes they are given some kind of work at home that supports the war effort, such as a job in a government office. Sometimes they are allowed to do work apart from the war that benefits society in some way, like charity work. However, COs are sometimes punished for not fighting. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than thirty-five COs were put in jail for refusing to fight.
Though armies do not usually appreciate the moral strength of COs, it takes courage to refuse to fight when one's country demands it. Sometimes COs who were considered cowards and traitors during wartime are recognized later as heroes for standing up for their beliefs. One of these is Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II and was executed for his actions in 1943.