A reluctant soldier’s astonishing valor

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Alvin York with his mother and one of his younger sisters at home in Pall Mall, Tennessee (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Third-grade dropouts rarely make history. Born in 1887, Alvin York shared a two-room log cabin with his parents and ten siblings in rural Appalachia. He quit school to work their small plot of land, shoot small game and help in his father’s smithy. After his dad died in 1911, York became the primary provider for his mother and eight younger siblings. As a young man, he blew off steam in town by drinking, fighting and getting arrested.

In 1915, York cleaned up his act and became a lay leader and noted singer in a pacifist Fundamentalist church. Two years later, when drafted to fight in the Great War, he wrote “Don’t want to fight” on his registration papers. But the Army refused to classify him as a conscientious objector. “I was worried clean through,” he later remembered. “I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

With an appeal pending, York trained at Camp Gordon in Georgia, where two officers cited scripture to convince him that Christians could wage war for a righteous cause. He decided to stay and earned promotion to corporal.

On October 9, 1918, during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the Army sent York’s unit behind enemy lines to eradicate several German machine gun nests. Shrouded in dawn fog, they silently infiltrated a dense thicket, quickly capturing several of the Kaiser’s soldiers.

Suddenly, exploding shells and heavy barrages of gunfire rained down from a nearby ridge, dropping 9 of the 17 Americans, including their leader, the sergeant.

Taking command, Corporal York ordered his seven unscathed comrades to take cover, treat the wounded, guard the captives and defend their position.

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The standard issue infantry rifle used by Corporal York: a 1917 Enfield .30–06 (Photo Credit: AGC)

Meanwhile, York mounted a one-man counterattack with his bolt-action rifle against a steep, wooded hillside hiding several dozen fully-automatic Maxim guns and hundreds of enemy soldiers.

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A crew of German soldiers operating a Maxim machine gun during the Great War (Photo Credit: SADJ)

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Corporal York defending against a bayonet charge with his Colt .45 (Photo Credit: Calguns)

At one point, while York changed clips, six enemy soldiers scrambled from a nearby trench and charged him with fixed bayonets. Drawing his Colt .45 service pistol,

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Three types of German grenades used in the Great War: stick, ball & egg (Photo Credit: WW2Z)

Advancing, York discovered a German officer hiding in the same trench. [rifle]

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Corporal York & his seven men returning to camp with the 132 Germans they captured (Photo Credit: GS)

Math must not have been York’s strong suit; the actual count was 132 Germans abandoning 32 machine gun nests and 27 dead comrades to surrender to him.

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Sgt. Alvin York wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre (Photo Credit: r81st)

For his valor, York earned promotion to sergeant, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Croix de Guerre and other accolades. After the war, he went home, married his sweetheart and used the proceeds from his celebrity to expand educational opportunities in his region, presumably to reduce the number of third-grade dropouts in east Tennessee.

He died in 1964.

Written by

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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