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.
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.
“And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful,” York recalled. “The Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush…. I had no time nohow to do nothing but watch them-there German machine gunners and give them the best I had.
“Every time I seed a German I jes tetched him off. At first I was shooting from a prone position;… jes like… in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn’t miss a German’s head or body at that distance. And I didn’t.”
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, “I tetched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.”
Advancing, York discovered a German officer hiding in the same trench. “I covered him with my [rifle] and told him if he didn’t make them stop firing I would take his head next. And he knowed I meaned it. So he blowed his whistle and they came down out of the trench and throwed down their guns and equipment and held up their hands and begun to gather around. I guess, though, one of them thought he could get me. He had his hands up all right. But he done had a little hand grenade concealed, and as he come up to me he throwed it right at my head. But it missed me and wounded one of the prisoners. I had to tetch him off. The rest surrendered without any trouble. There must have been about fifty of them.”
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.
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.