October 8 – Alvin C. York Day

Posted on October 8, 2013

Today is the commemoration of a heroic deed during World War I.

Alvin C. York had been born in a two-room cabin in Tennessee, back in 1887. He didn't want to fight in the war because of his strong religious views, but he was drafted into the army anyway. He discussed with his commanders how conflicted he felt between his religion's pacifist stance and his training in the army. Eventually he decided that, in this war at least, he should fight and even kill...if he had to.

And, sadly, he had to.

On this date in 1918, the battalion that York belonged was sent to capture a German position along a railway in France. However, the Germans were safely tucked into a “machine gun nest” on the hill and were killing American soldiers right and left. So a small group of soldiers, including York, were sent to work their way behind German lines and take out those machine guns.

At first the small expedition was a success, and the American soldiers captured a large group of German soldiers. Then came the counter-attack; the German machine guns peppered the area, killing and injuring nine of the U.S. soldiers.

Suddenly, York was the highest ranking soldier still active...so he was now in charge of the other seven remaining troops.

The seven guarded the prisoners while York took on the German soldiers manning the machine guns. All by himself.

Apparently, York was an excellent shot. He took a sniper position and shot 17 of the 30 or so German gunners. Finally the Germans realized that they were facing just one man, so six or seven (accounts differ) German soldiers rushed at York with their bayonets. They may have realized that York was out of rifle ammunition.

But York had a pistol, and he drew that and was able to kill all 6 – 7 German soldiers before they reached him!

The German commander facing York emptied his own pistol trying to kill the American sharp-shooter, but he didn't even injure York. So he called out in English and surrendered. York and the seven U.S. soldiers he led were able to march out 132 German prisoners and 32 German machine guns.

As heroic as this story is, of course, it is also completely tragic that so many young men—the Germans as well as the Americans—died “for their country.” York never wanted to kill—even when he felt he had to. He wrote that, all the while that he was proving his excellent marksmanship:

I kept yelling at them to come down. 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.”

A lot of things, such as buildings,
roads, and a state historic park, are
named after Alvin C. York
York got a lot of fame, the Medal of Honor, and some offers of fortune for his amazing feat. He turned down the offers of money for appearances, newspaper articles, and movie rights to his life story. He turned down cash for appearing in advertisements. Instead, he leant his name to charitable causes and campaigned successfully to get a road built to the region of Tennessee where he was born. 

(York did accept the gift of a farm, but he ended up losing a lot of money when people reneged on their promises at the same time that there was a farming depression.) 

Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the part
of Sergeant York.
York cooperated with journalists, publishers, and eventually even Hollywood to bring his story to America, but it seems that most or all of his earnings went to charities and schools.

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