Sergeant Alvin York

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Podcast Transcript

In October 1918, just weeks before the end of the First World War, one of the most incredible feats of military valor took place in the Meuse–Argonne offensive, one of the last great battles of the war. 

This incredible feat of bravery and soldiering was done by a very unlikely soldier. One that didn’t even want to participate in the war on religious grounds. 

His story has been the subject of books and movies and is still being told today. 

Learn more about Sergeant Alvin York and his remarkable heroism on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Alvin Cullum York was born on December 13, 1887, in Pall Mall, Tennessee. He was born and raised close to the Kentucky border in the Cumberland Mountains to a family that most outsiders would call hillbillies. 

His family was very poor, as were most of the people in his community. He was the third of eleven children, and his family lived in a one-room log cabin. 

For the most part, his family engaged in subsistence agriculture and hunting to provide their food. Alvin’s father and later himself engaged in many odd jobs to earn money. 

Alvin’s formal education only went through the third grade, at which point he had to give up schooling to help earn money and provide food for his family. 

As part of providing food for his family, he became an accomplished hunter, and as a result, he became an expert marksman. 

While his ability with a rifle certainly contributed to his later military success, much about his life before the military made him an unlikely hero. Strangely enough, he made for an unlikely hero for two completely different and diametrically opposed reasons. 

The first reason had to do with the fact that York was an alcoholic with violent tendencies. He would often binge drink, getting extremely drunk, usually on locally produced moonshine, and would then get into fights. 

He hung out with what you could call a bad crowd and got into constant trouble. 

This is not the sort of behavior you associate with a hero, and indeed, it wasn’t the sort of behavior that was this war hero. 

When he was well into his 20s, still unmarried, he fell for Gracie Loretta Williams. She was one of the more beautiful women in the area, but she and her parents had high standards. Given his behavior, they wouldn’t let Alvin court their daughter. 

Alvin began going to church every week just because it was his only chance to see her every week.

In late 1914, a close friend of his, Everett Delk, was beaten to death in a drunken fight in Kentucky. 

It was then he realized that if he was to avoid a fate similar to his friend, and if he was to ever have a chance with Gracie, he had to straighten up and change his ways.

In December 1914, Alvin attended a revival by a Christian minister named Rev. Melvin Herbert Russell.  On New Year’s Day, 1915, Alvin had a religious conversion, which he described by saying, “It was as if lightning struck my soul.”

By all accounts, Alvin’s religious conversion was very genuine. He completely changed his behavior overnight. He stopped drinking, swearing, and cavorting with the other men who were getting him into trouble. All of his neighbors noticed the change in Alvin.

When Gracie and her parents saw Alvin’s genuine change, they agreed to let him see their daughter, and in June 1917, they became engaged.

I mentioned that there were two diametrically different reasons why Alvin York was an unlikely hero. The first was the drinking and fighting. However, when he changed his ways, he also became a devout pacifist, which was the second reason he was an unlikely war hero. 

When the United States entered World War I, a draft was instituted. 

York initially refused to register for the draft. He believed that the bible said it was wrong to kill, and as such, he didn’t think it could in good faith fight in the war. As he later said, “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

Eventually, he was convinced by his local pastor that he should register for the draft or else he could wind up in prison. At first, he sought exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector. On the draft form, there was a question that asked, “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” 

York wrote, “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.”

His request for conscientious objector status was rejected because his church, the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, wasn’t a recognized established church, and they didn’t explicitly have a policy on pacifisim.  

At the time, conscientious objectors weren’t totally exempt from military duty. It only meant that they would be assigned to a position that didn’t conflict with their beliefs.

He also sought an exemption on the basis of being the sole support of his mother and siblings. This, too, was rejected. 

While his appeal was still being processed, he was sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia, to begin his training with the 82nd “All American” Division.

He and Gracie had their wedding put off until his return from the war. 

While in Camp Gordon, his conscientious objector status was known to his superiors, and he had several lengthy discussions with his commanding officers about his doubts about killing for his country. 

His company commander, Captain Edward Courtney Bullock Danforth Jr.,, and his battalion commander, Major G. Edward Buxton, were also both devout Christians and used to bible to try to convince him of the necessity of sometimes using violence.

They were actually extremely considerate of York’s views, considering that they really didn’t have to be. They granted York a 10 day leave to go back home and to think about things. 

When he returned, York was committed to the idea that it could be acceptable to fight and that he would do his duty and, if necessary, take a life for his country. 

Alvin York was shipped to France with the rest of his division and fought in the St. Mihiel Offensive from September 12 to 15, 1918. 

York fought admirably, was promoted to the rank of corporal, and given command over a small squad. 

However, the event that made Alvin York a household name, and the reason why a podcast episode is being done on him over 100 years later, took place on October 8 during the Meuse–Argonne offensive.

The Meuse–Argonne offensive was the last great Allied offensive of the war and an attempt to push the Germans behind the Hindenburg line to end the conflict. 

York’s unit was given an assignment to seize a position held by the  Germans on the other side of a valley not far from the village of Chatel-Chehery.  York was second in command of a group of 17 that was sent out to achieve the objective. 

What they didn’t know was that it was a death trap. The Americans were vastly outnumbered, with the Germans holding several machine gun positions on the high ground overlooking the valley.

The Americans, seeing the German position, tried to go behind the enemy lines to take them by surprise. In the process of doing so, they encountered the German command position and took most of the soldiers there captive. They were in the midst of preparing a counterattack on the Americans. 

While the Americans were trying to collect the prisoners, German machine guns in fortified positions above them fired on the Americans, killing six and wounding three, including the senior officer, leaving Corporal York as the commander. 

While the remaining men returned fire and covered their prisoners, York took it upon himself to clean out the machine guns that were pinning his unit down. 

York took cover and began using his supreme marksmanship skills to take out the Germans in the machine gun nests one by one. As they would pop their head up to fire, York would shoot and take them down. 

While he was doing this, a group of six Germans led a bayonet charge to stop him. He took out his pistol and shot all six of them. 

As York himself later said in his biography,

And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And 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… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time 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.

One German officer, First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commanding the 120th Reserve Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion, saw the damage that  York was inflicting on his unit, and surrendered the remaining solders to York. 

In the end, there were only eight men left standing from York’s unit. They captured 132 German soldiers, the majority of which were captured by York single handedly. York personally killed at least 20 Germans who were firing on him and his unit. 

When he and his men marched the prisoners out, the American headquarters had a difficult time believing what had happened and they had no idea what to do with so many campitves.

The actions of Alvin York and his unit allowed the continuation of the American attack and the capture of the Decauville Railroad by the end of the day. 

Word of the incredible feat of Alvin York spread rapidly. 

He was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant, the rank by which he was referred to for the rest of his life. 

He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. However, after a further investigation of what happened and how the events transpired, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. 

He received the Medal of Honor from the leader of the American forces, General John J. Pershing.

That, however, was just the beginning of the honors bestowed upon him.

Italy honored him with the Croce al Merito di Guerra. 

The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille Militaire, and the Legion of Honor. His awards were presented to him personally by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme allied commander. He told him, “What you did was the greatest thing ever accomplished by any soldier by any of the armies of Europe.”

In all, he received over 50 awards from various countries. 

However, despite all the awards, the public didn’t know about his heroics. That was until an article was published in the Saturday Evening Post on April 26, 1919. With the article telling his story, Alvin York was vaulted from obscurity to becoming the most famous man in American almost overnight. 

When he arrived back in the US in New York, a welcome reception was held in his honor that was attend by thousands of people. He went to Washingon DC where he was given a standing ovation by the House of Representatives. 

He made it to Georgia where he was routed out of the army and then a week later, he was back home where he was married to Gracie….by the governor of Tennessee. 

He was bombarded with business opportunities including movies, appearing on stage in vaudeville shows, and endorsement deals. Adjusted for inflation, the amount of the offers he received would be in the millions of dollars today. 

He turned them all down to live on a farm in the region where he grew up. 

He did, however, use his influence to better his community. He lobbied the state to build a road to better serve his town. 

In 1926, he founded the York Agricultural Institute, which was to provide vocational training to young people in Tennessee. 

During the Second World War, he tried to enlist again, but due to declining health, he was instead given a commission at the rank of Major in the Amy Signal Corps. He spent the war touring military bases and helping to sell war bonds. 

After years of rejecting offers from Hollywood to tell his story, he finally relented in 1940 when he wanted to build a bible school. The movie starred Gary Cooper and the film was released under the title “Sergeant York.” 

It was the highest-grossing film of 1941, and it earned 11 Oscar nominations, winning two for Best Actor and Best Editing.

In his later life, he came to believe that the first world war didn’t particularly solve anything. He also became very hawkish in his later years, even advocating the use of atomic weapons. 

After decades of health claims, he passed away on September 2, 1964, at the age of 76. His wife Gracie died in 1984. 

Sergeant Alvin York’s legacy is that of a humble hero who, despite his initial reservations, served his country with distinction and bravery. Despite the potential to cash in on his fame, he declined almost every opportunity to live on his farm with his family. 

York’s dedication to his community and his country, both during and after the war, remains an inspiring tale of heroism and selflessness.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today, I have a couple of short reviews that were left on Spotify. The first comes from  MdmBass, who writes, This is the best podcast of all time.  hello from lowa! I can’t wait to join the completionist chapter here.

The next review comes from Amanda Guthrie, who writes, 

Great Podcast! Your delight in learning is contagious. You are like the most interesting Uncle I’ve ever had. So yes, I have decided to adopt you. Welcome to the Guthrie Clan

Thank you both. MdmBass, the keys to the Iowa completionist club will be waiting for you when you qualify, and Amanda, I hope to see you and Arlo at the next Guthrie family reunion. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.