By Jeff Olson
In looking back on the history of our great nation, there have been ordinary Americans who contributed in extraordinary ways to the freedom and future of our country. Some of these served in our military and received special recognition such as the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for military valor. Among those: Mary Edwards Walker, Eddie Rickenbacker, Edward “Butch” O’Hare, Audie Murphy and Desmond Doss may be some we are familiar with. Another such patriot is the subject of this week’s column. Perhaps most extraordinary about this man however was that his post-war contributions were considered to be above and beyond his remarkable courage and valor on the battlefield and that his motivation and guidance came from his Christian faith more than anything else.
Born the third of eleven children in a two-room log cabin on December 13, 1887, Alvin Cullum York grew up a hard-working young man farming land which grew rocks much better than it did corn, but he was also rambunctious with quite a wild streak. After one of his best friends was killed in a bar fight, and through the love, prayers and patience of his mother and pastor, York accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in January 1915. His life was forever changed and soon after he was very active in his local church, serving as song leader, teacher and elder.
After America entered World War I, the military draft arrived in York’s home town of Pall Mall, but he initially refused to register because of his religious convictions. A coward he was not, but a hypocrite he was also not. As he later stated, “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.” Encouraged by his pastor, Rosier Pile, York applied for exemption as a conscientious objector, but his request was denied as was his appeal. With some reservations and reluctance, York registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 and reported to Camp Gordon, Georgia. However, unanswered questions remained for him. During a time of soul-searching back home on furlough and upon receiving insightful guidance (rooted in the Bible and American history) from two of his commanding officers, York came to understand the justification and necessity of war in protecting his home, family and way of life and in preserving the freedom to worship and serve God according to his conscience and beliefs.
York’s early life in rural northern Tennessee gave him reason for and experience in becoming an excellent marksman. This skill proved indispensable when the 82nd Infantry Division was sent to France to defeat the German army. One hundred two years ago this Thursday, October 8, 1918, York’s faith, courage, marksmanship and resolve were put to the ultimate test in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which would become the final Allied push against Germany’s forces on the Western Front. On Castle Hill (Hill 223) he silenced 35 machine guns, killed more than 20 enemy soldiers and then almost single-handedly captured another 132, including 4 officers. The Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, called York, “The greatest civilian soldier of the war.” Pershing presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor and promoted him to Sergeant. Marshal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander said, “What York did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe.” France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. He also received the Croce de Guera and War Medal from Italy. When York returned to the United States, he received a hero’s welcome and a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
In York’s words, “In the war the hand of God was with us. It is impossible for anyone to go through with what we did and come out without the hand of God. We didn’t want money; we didn’t want land; we didn’t want to lose our boys over there. But we had to go into it to give our boys and young ladies a chance for peace in the days to come.”
York’s fame soon attracted those who wish to capitalize on it, so he was highly sought after by American businessmen, mostly in entertainment, advertising, and publishing. In all, the offers he received totaled more than one hundred thousand dollars (1.7 million in 2020 dollars), but York refused them convinced that “Uncle Sam’s uniform ain’t for sale.”
Instead, he returned home where he married his sweetheart Gracie Williams (1900-1984) in June 1919 and resumed farming and serving his church. Alvin York wore the mantle of “war hero” with integrity, dignity and humility. He dedicated the remainder of his life to raising a family of eight children with Gracie and championing rural education, economic development, and charitable and civic causes in his native Fentress County and the State of Tennessee. The school he founded in 1926, The York Institute, is still in operation in Jamestown.
In 1941 a motion picture about his life, Sergeant York, was released, not only exposing new generations to Alvin York but also serving as a strong patriotic and morale boost to Americans facing World War II. York attempted to re-enlist in the Army as an infantryman, but he was 54 years old, overweight, nearly diabetic, and suffering from arthritis. Though his request was denied, he was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps, touring training camps and taking part in bond drives to raise funds for the war effort. The Sergeant suffered a stroke in 1954, which left him bedridden for the remainder of his life. He passed away on September 2, 1964.
Not long before his death, York said that he preferred to be remembered for what he did after the war, “for helping improve education in Tennessee, bringing in better roads, and just helping my fellow man.” Today, more than a century after that day on Hill 223, Alvin York’s example and legacy endure and continue to inspire generations of Tennesseans and countless other Americans, including me. Yes, he was a genuine American war hero but most important of all – he was a great man.