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Sergeant York Of Tennessee
People will always differ as to what was the most remarkable exploit of
the World War. Major General George B. Duncan, one of the American
commanders who helped to drive the Germans out of the Argonne forest,
has said that Corporal Alvin C. York, a tall, red-headed, raw-boned
mountaineer from Tennessee distinguished himself above all men in the
achievement of the greatest individual deed in the World War.
[Illustration: Sergeant York wearing the French Croix de Guerre and the
Congressional Medal of Honor.]
Because of his brave acts, Corporal York was made Sergeant York, was
given the Croix de Guerre with a palm, and the Congressional Medal of
Honor. His own state has made him a colonel for life on the Governor's
Before the officers of York's division, the 82d, Major General C. P.
Summerall, a soldier not given to over-praise or exaggeration,
commended him in these words:
Corporal York, your division commander has reported to me your
exceedingly gallant conduct during the operations of your division in
the Meuse-Argonne battle. I desire to express to you my pleasure and
commendation for the courage, skill, and gallantry which you displayed
on that occasion. It is an honor to command such soldiers as you.
Your conduct reflects great credit not only upon the American army, but
also upon the American people. Your deeds will be recorded in the
history of this great war, and they will live as an inspiration not
only to your comrades, but also to the generations that will come after
us. I wish to commend you publicly and in the presence of the officers
of your division.
Corporal York was about thirty years of age, six feet tall, and weighed
a little over two hundred pounds. He would not be called handsome,
although he was really a fine looking man, with keen gray eyes that
could become hard and penetrating when he was greatly moved. He was a
gentle man with a soft, quiet voice and a Southern drawl. He was very
religious and was the Second Elder in the Church of Christ and
Christian Union when he was called to the service of his country.
The church to which he belonged did not believe in war. Like the
Quakers, its members were conscientious objectors. It was supposed
that Alvin C. York would ask exemption as a conscientious objector;
but he did not, although his friends begged him to do so. He reported
for duty at Camp Gordon, Georgia, on November 14, 1917.
He was often troubled however with the feeling that to kill men, even
in a righteous war to ensure liberty to all the world, was contrary to
his religion and the teachings of the Bible. He finally came to
realize that in this belief he was wrong, and that it was his duty, and
the duty of every brave man, to meet armed oppression by arms, and when
no other way was left, to kill those who would by force take away the
life and liberty of others.
He was an expert pistol and rifle shot, as are almost all Tennessee and
Kentucky mountaineers. In a shooting match with a major of his
division, York is said to have hit with his automatic pistol at every
shot a penny match-box over one hundred feet distant. His coolness and
courage in the face of danger and his skill with the pistol and rifle
enabled him to do the impossible--or at any rate, what every one would
have declared impossible, before Alvin C. York accomplished it.
All through the Argonne forest, from Verdun almost to Sedan, the
Americans were obliged to advance between hills, and often over hills
covered with dense tangles of shrubs, vines, and trees, among which the
Germans had hidden machine-gun nests.
Corporal York, on the morning of October 8, 1918, with his battalion
was attempting to get behind the machine-gun nests on a hillside and to
destroy them. The hill was then only known by number; it is now called
They were to climb the hill and come down over the crest, as in this
way they would get behind the German machine-guns. Sergeant Bernard
Early with sixteen men was ordered to undertake the task. Corporal
York was one of the men. At the start they were observed and were
caught by German fire from three directions. Six of the small company
were killed and three wounded, leaving Corporal York with seven
privates to advance up the hillside.
They succeeded in reaching the crest of the hill, although machine-gun
bullets were constantly whipping about them, usually however over their
heads in the branches. They came upon an old trench and followed it
over the brow of the hill, when suddenly they saw two Germans ahead of
them. They fired on the Germans; one ran and escaped, the other
surrendered. Going on, they soon discovered a couple of dozen Germans
gathered about a small hut beside a stream which ran through the valley
below. The Americans opened fire. The Germans dropped their guns,
threw up their hands, and yelled, Kamerad! Kamerad! This meant they
had surrendered. Among them was the major in command.
Some of York's seven men were assigned to guard the prisoners and had
assembled them, when a hail of machine-gun bullets came from the
hillside directly in front of them and across the brook. Every one,
Germans included, fell flat on the ground. The Americans had indeed
come over the hilltop down behind the German machine-guns, but the
gunners had now turned them squarely around and were sending a rain of
bullets upon the Americans. They avoided firing upon their German
comrades and thus the American privates guarding them were
comparatively safe. Corporal York was on the hill above the prisoners
and it was difficult for the gunners to hit him without killing or
injuring some of their own men. A well-aimed rifle or pistol shot
might have done it, however.
He had fallen into a path and was somewhat protected by the rise on the
side toward the German guns. From here, lying flat upon his face, he
coolly aimed his rifle and picked off German after German, after every
shot calling upon those left to come down and surrender.
His comrades could not assist him, for those who were not with the
German prisoners were so situated that to show themselves meant instant
Seeing York must be taken at any cost, a German lieutenant and seven
men sprang up from behind one of the machine-guns, only about one
hundred feet distant, and charged upon the red-headed American who was
fighting a whole company. The officer who ordered the Germans to
charge knew of course that some of them would be killed, but he was
sure the remaining ones would capture or kill the American; but York,
the man from Tennessee, who was not sure at one time that it was right
to fight, did not lose his coolness, his courage, or his skill with the
automatic pistol, and a German lieutenant and seven German privates
fell before his unerring aim.
Then the German commander offered to surrender, and Corporal York and
his seven American privates escorted one hundred and thirty-two German
prisoners back to the American lines. About forty of these were added
to the original number by the capture of another German machine-gun
nest on the way back.
Corporal York showed the extreme modesty which is characteristic of
very brave men, in not mentioning his exploit when he reached his own
battalion headquarters. The prisoners had been delivered at another,
and it was only by accident that York's superior officers learned of it
When Sergeant York returned to America, he was received with great
pride by the Tennessee Society of New York City, and was granted his
first wish to talk over the long-distance telephone with his old mother
in Tennessee. He was taken to see the New York Stock Exchange where
business was suspended for half an hour while the members cheered him.
Thousands of persons on the streets recognized him and crowded around
the automobile in which he rode so that the police had to clear a path
for the car.
At the banquet given in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel,
generals, admirals, noted bankers, and members of Congress united in
his praise. During the dinner, Sergeant York was unanimously elected
an honorary life-member of the Tennessee Society.
From New York, he went to Washington, where he was similarly received
because of these and other acts of heroism which distinguish him as one
of the great soldiers of the World War. After being honorably
discharged, he returned to the Tennessee Mountains to marry the girl
who had been waiting for him to return from the war. The wedding which
took place in a humble mountain home was attended by thousands of
people from all over the state. The Governor of Tennessee, a former
judge of the district, performed the ceremony, after which York and his
bride were his guests at the Executive Mansion in Nashville, where a
public reception was given in his honor.
Through these tributes to Sergeant York the people of the United States
attempted to show their true appreciation and admiration of the courage
and fortitude of the non-commissioned officer.
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