Today we remember: Sergeant Alvin York
Born in Pall Mall, Tennessee in 1887, Alvin York was one of eleven children. He spent much of his youth helping to provide for his family by taking on laboring jobs as well as hunting and fishing to put food on the table.
Alvin had a conversion experience in 1914 and dedicated himself to the Church of Christ in Christian Union, so when he was drafted he originally claimed conscientious objector status. He was later persuaded that military service was not incompatible with his religion and arrived in France in 1918, as part of the 82nd Division.
Later that year he was promoted to corporal and, on October 8 during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, was one of 17 soldiers given the task of infiltrating German lines to silence a machine gun position.
Alvin and his patrol had captured a large group of enemy soldiers when they found themselves under heavy machine gun fire. Six of the patrol were killed and three were wounded. Of those still able to fight, Alvin was the highest ranking, so he took charge of the men.
Thanks to his hunting days, Alvin was a great shot and, as his men guarded their prisoners, Alvin attacked the machine gun position alone with his rifle. When only six Germans remained, they charged with their bayonets. Alvin was out of rifle ammunition, so drew his pistol and shot them all.
Alvin accepted the surrender of the German officer in charge and claimed more prisoners on the way back to American lines. He and his men had captured 132 enemy soldiers in total and Alvin was immediately promoted to sergeant. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, but a later investigation into the incident saw this upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He was later decorated by several foreign countries, including France and Italy.
Upon his return to the USA after the war, Alvin took up farming when businessmen in Tennessee organized the purchase of a farm for him and his family. Later, Alvin set up a foundation to improve the educational opportunities available to children in rural Tennessee – opportunities that had not been available to him and his siblings.
In 1941, Gary Cooper won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Alvin York in the film Sergeant York, that year’s highest-grossing film. The film was credited with boosting American morale as the country entered World War Two.
Alvin died in 1964, aged 77 and the national hero was buried at the Wolf River Cemetery in his hometown Pall Mall.