The Heroic Alvin York

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the scene of bloody fighting inflicted and sustained by the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Beginning in September 1918 and lasting until Armistice Day (November 11th), it was the last major battle on the Western Front. Shining through the fighting were acts of bravery and sacrifice by those saving their comrades and leading troops against deadly odds.

One of the most well-known of these heroes was Alvin Cullum York of Tennessee. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Corporal York approached a German machine gun emplacement and killed its crew, survived a German bayonet charge, and captured 132 enemy soldiers. His actions merited a promotion to sergeant and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The DSC was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, awarded personally by General John J. Pershing. The international attention earned him a celebrity status and became known by his sobriquet, Sergeant York.
Alvin York did not imagine the acclaim he received. After all, he initially registered as a conscientious objector (CO).

Conscientious objector claim appeal form for Alvin York (Official Military Personnel File of Alvin C. York, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319, Records of the Army Staff 1903-2009)

York was brought up in a devoutly religious family and belonged to the Church of Christ in Christian Union denomination which forbade violence. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all able bodied men older than 21 register for the draft, and when York’s claim for CO status was denied, he appealed this decision on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were not exempt from military service in 1917, however, as they were normally given non-combat assignments. At Camp Gordon, Georgia, York routinely felt conflicted between his military duty and religious conscience on pacifism. Two of his commanding officers, Capt. Edward C.B. Danforth and Major G. Edward Buxton argued that his religious beliefs didn’t conflict with his duties as a soldier, citing Bible verses which eventually convinced York that his military service wouldn’t force him to compromise his morality.

“…and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

The Book of Luke, Chapter 22, Verse 36

“…My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…”

The Book of John, Chapter 18, Verse 36

York was assigned to the 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division and saw his first combat during the St. Mihiel Offensive. On October 8, 1918, Cpl. York led the charge on Hill 233 in the Meuse-Argonne that catapulted him to international renown and earned him the Medal of Honor. York’s battalion was ordered to capture a German machine gun placement on the Decauville railroad near Chatel-Chehery so Corporal York and other soldiers infiltrated behind the German lines. They first captured a German command post, but several U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded, leaving York with little backup. He crawled beneath heavy wooded undergrowth and was soon charged by German with fixed bayonets. He shot every enemy soldier that charged and when he reached a German lieutenant who failed to shoot back, the lieutenant quickly surrendered himself and his unit to York. The German prisoners were marched by the remaining U.S. soldiers York commanded and when Brigadier General Julian Lindsey stated ‘Well York, I heard you captured the entire German army,’ York simply replied, ‘No sir, I  only captured 132.’ He was immediately promoted to Sergeant and received the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor and presented to him personally by John J. Pershing, commanding general of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Sergeant Alvin Cullum York, wearing the Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre

Following his homecoming, York immediately went back to work in his home state. In the 1920s, he founded the Alvin C. York Foundation for the purpose of providing educational and agricultural training for students in Tennessee. During the Great Depression, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and oversaw the construction of the Cumberland Mountain State Park. In World War II, he re-enlisted but, because he suffered from a myriad of health issues, he was not given a combat assignment. Instead, York was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps and inspected training camps. Alvin York continued to campaign for proper education and training for everyone, and on September 2, 1964, he died at the Nashville Veterans Hospital.

Alvin York never lost his religious conviction while in the Meuse-Argonne and when asked by his brigade commander General Julian Lindsey what happened, he replied “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

Recommendation for Distinguished Service Cross for Alvin York by commanding officer of the 328th Infantry for actions in the Meuse-Argonne (Official Military Personnel File of Alvin C. York, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319 Records of the Army Staff 1903-2009)

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