Sgt. York and the forgotten war

Monday, May 1, 2017

People don’t give much thought to World War I anymore. In a recent survey on the most important events of the 20th century World War I barely made it into the top 10.

This is unfortunate. A case can be made that World War I had a profound effect on almost everything that happened for the rest of the last century — the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, World War II, the Holocaust, the development of the atomic bomb. The great Depression of the ’30s, the Cold War, and the collapse of the European colonies in India and Africa can be traced, at least indirectly, to the First World War.

World War I killed more people (9 million soldiers and sailors, plus another 5 million civilians) and cost more ($186 billion in direct costs plus another $151 billion in indirect costs) than any previous war in history. It was the first war to use airplanes, tanks, long range artillery, submarines, and poison gas. It left more than 7 million men permanently disabled.

The United States was badly divided about entering World War I. In 1915, German subs had sunk the British ship Lusitania, which carried a number of American passengers, but a sizeable percentage of Americans still felt that we should stay on our side of the Atlantic. President Wilson had run for re-election in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war!”, but early in 1917, deciding that European forces needed American troops to win the European War, he declared war on Germany, and almost immediately he signed a bill calling for a draft of young American men.

By the end of the war more than 300,000 Americans were fighting to “Make The World Safe For Democracy.”

One of these American draftees was Alvin York from Pall Mall, Tennessee, who would become American’s most decorated soldier from World War I.

Alvin York was born in 1887 into a family of 11 children in a two-room “dogtrot” log cabin. He had never traveled more than 50 miles from the place of his birth. His father supplemented a marginal farming operation by working as a blacksmith.

The hunting of wild game was a large part of the family’s sustenance, and as a result Alvin became an expert with guns of all kinds as he hunted game in the area woods. At age 30, he was considered old to be drafted into the army.

Growing up in the back country had been difficult for York. He probably had a total of no more than nine months of schooling, and as a young man he was something of a “nuisance” to the community.

He was known as a crack shot and frequently won prize money at local and regional “Turkey Shoots.” As a laborer on the railroad he was an indifferent worker. He was not a criminal, but was known as a “hell raiser,” forever getting into drunken brawls.

This irresponsible behavior came to a sudden halt in 1914, when Alvin’s best friend was killed in a bar room fight. Alvin quit his drinking, gambling, and fighting on the spot.

He became a devout Christian, a Sunday School teacher, and choir leader in his church.

He was also an objector to war, though the church to which he belonged was not recognized as a formal religious denomination — therefor his request to be recognized as a conscientious objector was denied and he was drafted into the Army.

By the fall of 1918, York, now a corporal with the 328th Infantry of the 82nd Infantry Division, took part in the Battle of Meuse River-Argonne Forest in France.

When three other NCOs fell in battle York assumed command of his unit. Somehow his detachment misread their map, which was written in French, and found itself behind enemy lines. The accounts of York’s exploits in the battle are somewhat confusing and perhaps overblown (aided by Hollywood’s great 1941 movie, “Sgt. York,” starring Gary Cooper). But the official citation says that his detachment was reduced to only nine men by enemy fire. Those nine men charged an active machine gun nest. They snuffed out that machine gun, in the process killing 25 German soldiers, and captured 132 of the enemy, including four officers.

(York merely said that he and his nine men had “surrounded the enemy”).

The US Army honored this accomplishment by promoting York to Sergeant and awarding him the Distinguished Service Cross. France added its Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. (As he was awarding York’s medal, France’s Marshall Faulk, the overall Allied Commander said, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”) Italy and Montenegra also awarded him their highest wartime medals.

York’s exploits had captured America’s imagination. Back home again, he was treated as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln — another frontiersman born in a log cabin, who rose to greatness. York wanted none of it. His comment to a reporter was, “It’s over; let’s forget it.” When agents tried to lure him to Hollywood, and attempted to use his name to sell products he said, “This uniform is not for sale.”

All he wanted to do was go home to Tennessee to resume peacetime life. Arrangements by the Army were made so that he was able to go home before his formal enlistment period was over.

In Tennessee further surprises awaited him. The Nashville Rotary Club presented him with a new home and farm. Unfortunately, the Rotary Club did not raise enough money to pay for everything so York was saddled with a hefty mortgage well into the 1920s.

York had seen enough of the outside world to know the value of an education, and used his influence to found the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute in the hills near his hometown. It still serves as the public high school for the district — where any qualified student in Tennessee can attend to receive an education, specializing in Agriculture.

York never did fully come to terms with his mixed feelings on war. When World War II approached he made speaking tours, promoting funds for his Institute, but also to urge Christians to ignore world events, because Europe was soon to be in another war that America should avoid at all costs.

Before Pearl Harbor however, York came to see the danger that Hitler brought to the world and came to endorse both the draft and America’s entry into the war.

He attempted to enlist himself, but his efforts were rejected. However, he was appointed to the Tennessee Preparedness Committee and named the Chairman of the Fentress County Draft Board. Throughout World War II he traveled the country on bond tours, recruitment drives and camp inspections ...

York had never been good with money. If he had it he spent it, or gave it away to people he considered more in need than himself. He ended up practically destitute. In the 1960s President Kennedy settled York’s debt to the IRS over movie royalties and secured some $30,000 to be placed in trust to be used in the family’s best interest.

York died in 1964 and was buried with full military honors in the cemetery at Pall Mall. General Matthew Ridgway served as President Johnson’s official representative.

Two more honors were paid to Alvin York after his death. In the 1980s the United States Army named its DIVAD anti-aircraft weapon the “Sergeant York.”

In 2000, the United States Postal Service issued the “Distinguished Soldiers” series of stamps. Alvin York was one of the Distinguished Soldiers so honored.

Source: From Gazette Archives

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