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Alvin C. York: The Greatest Civilian Soldier of World War I


General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, lauded Alvin Cullum York as “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I. Although York unquestionably distinguished himself as one of the Great War's most incredible heroes through his valor on the battlefield, he initially hesitated to serve as a soldier. Drafted into the United States Army after America entered the First World War on the side of the Allies in 1917, York was a deeply religious man and sought exemption as a conscientious objector since violence was against his religion. The devout man from the small mountain town of Pall Mall, Tennessee was ultimately denied conscientious-objector status, however, and arrived in France along with the 82nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in May 1918.

Participating in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the American-led campaign that would become the final Allied push against German forces on Europe's bloody Western Front, York went above and beyond the call of duty. Operating in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France on October 8, 1918, Corporal York and 17 other Americans came under heavy fire from a German machine-gun nest at the top of a nearby hill after capturing enemy prisoners. Nine of his comrades went down, including the unit’s ranking officer, which left York in charge of the unit.

Alvin Cullum York (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In his diary, York detailed his subsequent actions writing, “I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn't even have time to kneel or lie down...." As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them.” Whenever a German head was exposed above the trench, York “touched it off,” displaying the superior marksmanship that he had learned from his days hunting turkeys in Tennessee. Several of the enemy tried to charge the corporal with bayonets, but he drew his pistol and cut them all down. In his words, “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.”

Following York’s example, several other Americans battled back against the Germans. As they pushed towards the enemy position, the German commander thought he had underestimated the size of the force up against him and surrendered his garrison of around 90 men. As York and his men moved back to the Allied lines, they took even more prisoners, capturing a total of 132 enemy troops. York was responsible for taking 35 machine-gun nests out of action and was given credit for singlehandedly killing more than 20 German soldiers.

York was not one to boast of his heroics, but his valor did not go unnoticed. The Tennessean was promoted to the rank of sergeant and remained on the front lines until November 1, 1918, just ten days before the armistice that ultimately ended the First World War. The following year, York was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire.

York standing on the hill where he performed his remarkable actions on October 8, 1918. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The New York Times anointed York as “the war’s biggest hero,” and although he tried to shun the spotlight, he became an instant celebrity. After returning home to Tennessee, York settled into a quiet farming life, founded a school for underprivileged children, and joined several charities and civic causes. The diary he kept during the war served as the basis for the 1928 autobiography Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary, co-written by York and Thomas John Skeyhill. In 1941, York’s heroism made it to the big screen. The film Sergeant York was based on his exploits and starred Gary Cooper, who won an Academy Award for his performance. Despite his declining health at the age of 54, York reportedly attempted to re-enlist in the Army as an infantryman during the Second World War. Although his request to enlist was denied, he was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps. By visiting training camps and participating in bond drives to raise money for the war effort, York did his part to serve his country once again. On September 2, 1964, the legendary soldier passed away. To this day, he remains one of the ultimate symbols of the unbreakable American fighting spirit.


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