Thursday, June 11, 2020

Sergeant York: Fighting Celt

Commander Kelly and Sergeant York
Pall Mall, TN

Alvin York

Argonne's dead are all
gone now, but the Sergeant's fame
marches boldly on.

(Haiku by Stuart Laycock)

Alvin C. York Bust
Alvin C. York State Park
Pall Mall, TN

Alvin York, of partly Celtic descent, became the most celebrated American enlisted soldier of the Great War.

Alvin Cullum York was born in 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee. York was of mixed English and Scottish heritage and had the classic Celtic look of red hair and freckles. His father worked as a blacksmith. He grew up in a log cabin in the Cumberland Mountains and learned to shoot a rifle at an early age.

York was a deeply religious Christian who, upon being drafted, initially sought deferment as a conscientious objector. However, his commanding officers in the 328th Regiment of the 82nd Division eventually convinced him of the justice of the American cause and of the urgency for fighting. The 82nd was known as the All American Division, and York had an AA on his shoulder patch. So, York was among over two million doughboys that went “Over There” in the American Expeditionary Force to fight on the Western front in World War I. Most American soldiers trained for about six months prior to embarking for France. York trained for five months at Camp Gordon in Georgia, which remains today the headquarters for the US Army Signal Corps. At Camp Gordon, York’s expert marksmanship was recognized, and he was promoted to corporal. It was a sign of what was to come.

During the war, a German salient had developed at Saint-Mihiel near Verdun in France. The newly arrived Yanks were sent in to break the salient. York saw his first fighting in June of 1918 at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. The offensive was an American success, liberating two hundred square miles of French territory and causing around seven thousand German casualties.  However, this success came at a heavy price. Today Saint-Mihiel is notable for the American cemetery located there, which contains the graves of over 4,100 Americans.

Alvin York earns his Medal of Honor
Meuse Argonne
Alvin C. York Home
Pall Mall, TN

It was in Meuse-Argonne Offensive of the fall of 1918 that York won international fame. On October 8, 1918, Corporal York eliminated a German machine gun nest, fought off a bayonet attack, and picked off twenty-five enemy soldiers. His actions resulted in the capture of 128 German soldiers and four officers from the Kaiser’s Army. York was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, which was subsequently upgraded to the Medal of Honor. In the spring of 1919, Marshal Foch himself pinned the French Croix de Guerre on York’s chest. York was also promoted to the rank for which he will always be remembered—Sergeant.
AEF meets...
An Adventure in 1914

After the action, York recalled in his diary:

"… those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush … I was sharp shooting … All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had."

On November 11, 1918, the guns on the Western Front at last fell silent. On his return to America, York received a hero’s welcome, including a ticker tape parade in New York City and a standing ovation from the US House of Representatives in Washington DC. He married his hometown sweetheart, Gracie Williams, about a week after his return to Tennessee and started a large family. Among their eight children were the patriotically named Andrew Jackson York and Betsy Ross York.
York remained deeply committed to his faith, declaring: “It was the hand of God that guided us in all and brought about the victory … I feel it was through Him that I accomplished what I did.

After the chaos and carnage of France, York returned to the peace of farming. He also campaigned tirelessly for improved roads in rural Tennessee and devoted himself to charitable, civic, and educational projects in his home state.

York was already a legend, and that legend grew even bigger. In 1941, Howard Hawks directed a film titled Sergeant York that was released in September of that year. Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the blockbuster film. A young Texan named Audie Murphy saw the film twice that year and was inspired to enlist in the US Army (See earlier blog on Audie Murphy...

After Pearl Harbor, York, answering his nation's call once again, attempted to reenlist in the army. He was denied a combat role because of his age and physical condition, but he did serve as a major in the US Army Signal Corps and on bond drives.

York was a staunch hawk during the Cold War, and he was frustrated by the stalemate that developed in the Korean War. At one point, he declared, “If they can't find anyone else to push the button, I will.”
Alvin & Gracie York
Wolf River Cemetery, TN
Alvin York died in 1964 and was buried at Wolf River Cemetery near his home in Pall Mall. The Alvin C. York highway in Tennessee is named after him.

In the twenty-first century, using rigorous forensic methods, the exact location where York earned his somewhat controversial Medal of Honor was determined, largely through the efforts of Colonel Douglas Mastriano. Mastriano later wrote a biography titled Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne (  Even shell casings from York’s .45 automatic Colt pistol were recovered at the battle site. In Chatel-Chéhéry in 2008, a Circuit du Sergeant York (a walking trail) was dedicated by French and American officials on the ninetieth anniversary of his battle in the Argonne.

Tourist Notes: The Alvin C. York State Park in Pall Mall, Tennessee is a fantastic way to explore the life of this American hero.   You can visit the home where he lived with his wife Gracie and also see the dry goods store that they ran.

101 Fighting Celts: From Boudicca to MacArthur is coming soon...

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