Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A real hero...

Sgt. Alvin York was a hero among heroes. One of 11 children from an impoverished family living in a two-room cabin in the Tennessee woods, York became the sole wage earner for his family after his father died. He was an alcoholic, prone to get into drunken brawls almost nightly, yet attending church every Sunday. He underwent a conversion experience on Jan. 1, 1915, after attending a revival meeting in 1914 and affiliating himself with the Church of Christ in Christian Union. This church shunned secular politics and disputes, and preached a doctrine of non-violence.

At the age of 29, York  registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, as did all men between the age of 21 and 31. York initially requested conscientious objector status by writing "Don't want to fight." On his draft papers. He was rejected and appealed, but began his military service in 1917. York stated later in life that he objected to the war, didn't want to fight, and believed in his bible.

During WWI conscientious objector status did not exempt one from military service. They often were drafted and given roles that didn't clash with their beliefs. While his application was being considered, he was drafted and began his service.

York kept a diary from the day he was drafted until his return from war on May 29, 1919. In his diary, York wrote that he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking a discharge from the Army on religious grounds and refused to sign similar documents provided by his mother asserting a claim of exemption as the sole support of his mother and siblings. He also disclaimed ever having been a conscientious objector.

York was deeply troubled as a pacifist training to kill others in a European War, and spoke at length about his troubles to many chaplains and army officers. He quoted bible passages, and was unsure he could perform his duties as expected. They forced York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. Granted a 10-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe, as committed to his new mission as he had been to pacifism.

In an action during the U.S.-led portion of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, which was part of a broader Allied offensive masterminded by Marshal Ferdinand Foch to breach the Hindenburg Line and make the opposing German forces surrender, York, three other NCOs, and thirteen privates were given the order to infiltrate behind German lines and take out machine guns that were causing great problems to the US forces in the area.

The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. The men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans, and wounding 3 others. The fire came from other machine guns atop a nearby ridge. The loss of the nine left Corporal York in command of the remainder. York determined to take action before more were lost.

As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns. During his assault, 6 Germans charged York. His rifle now empty, he draw his Colt 1911 pistol and killed them all. 

German First Lieutenant Paul J├╝rgen Vollmer, commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted. By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.

York was swiftly promoted to the rank of Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Valor. Upon further examination of his actions on that fateful day, York was presented with the Medal of Honor. It was given to him personally by commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General John J., Black Jack, Pershing. He also received medals and decorations from other foreign nations, including France, that number nearly 50 in total. 

Alvin York's Medal of Honor citation reads:

"After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns."

In reference to his deeds of that fateful day in France, York merely said:

"A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do."

York's heroism went unnoticed in the United States press, even in Tennessee, until the publication of the April 26, 1919 issue of the  "Saturday Evening Post",  which had a circulation in excess of 2 million. In an article titled "The Second Elder Gives Battle", journalist George Patullo, who had learned of York's story while touring battlefields earlier in the year, laid out the themes that have dominated York's story ever since: the mountaineer, his religious faith and skill with firearms, patriotic, plainspoken and unsophisticated, an uneducated man who "seems to do everything correctly by intuition." 

York refused many offers to profit from his name and his story. He turned down book and movie rights, and such things as product endorsements, instead lobbying in Tennessee for civic improvements and donating his time and money to religious and charitable organizations. He married one week after returning home from the war. 

In the 1920's, he formed the Alvin C. York Foundation with the goal of increasing opportunities for education in the region of Tennessee. York concentrated on fund-raising, though he disappointed audiences who wanted to hear about the Argonne when he instead explained that "I occupied one space in a fifty mile front. I saw so little it hardly seems worthwhile discussing it. I'm trying to forget the war in the interest of the mountain boys and girls that I grew up among."

During World War II York attempted to re-enlist in the Army, however at fifty-four years of age, overweight, near-diabetic, and with evidence of arthritis, he was denied enlistment as a combat soldier. Instead, he was commissioned a major in the Army Signal Corps and he toured training camps and participated in bond drives in support of the war effort, usually paying his own travel expenses. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway later recalled that York "created in the minds of farm boys and clerks...the conviction that an aggressive soldier, well trained and well armed, can fight his way out of any situation." 

Alvin York died on Sept. 2, 1964 of a cerebral hemorrhage, after suffering years of illnesses and ailments and being bedridden since 1954. He was buried in the Wolf River Cemetery in Pall Mall, TN. He was survived by his wife and his 8 children, many of whom were named after historical figures.

Alvin York, a common man from poor upbringing, was one of the greatest heroes this country has ever seen. He stayed true to his word and true to his cause, and he proved that the determined underdog can prevail through perserverance in even the most trying of circumstances. He never gave up, and inspired others to do the same.

Oh, and why this post on this day? It was on October 8, 1918 that Alvin York forever forged his name in the annals of US military history.

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