I am in Nashville, Tennessee, this week doing interviews for the “BreakPoint” and “Listening In” podcasts. As I have been driving around middle Tennessee, I keep coming upon a name important in American history, but which sent me to the Internet for a refresher course in the life of one of the most remarkable “common men” of the 20th century. That name is Alvin C. York.
Alvin Cullum York, also known as “Sergeant York,” was born in this part of Tennessee in 1887. Despite regular church attendance, York grew up to be a rowdy, brawling young man, prone to heavy drinking. However, in 1914 he gave his life to Christ and became more active in church, a small denomination with Wesleyan roots called the Church of Christ in Christian Union. (Motivational speaker and author John Maxwell also grew up in this denomination.)
York was drafted into World War I, despite being nearly 30 years old. At first, he claimed conscientious objector status, but after a season of searching his own conscience and the Scriptures, he concluded that he could honorably serve in the military. The U.S. Army shipped him off to France in 1918, and on Oct. 8, exactly 99 years ago this week, York participated in a patrol that changed his life, and became a part of the American Myth.
York’s unit had taken heavy casualties from a German machine gun position, so York and 16 other soldiers got a tough assignment: Infiltrate the enemy line and neutralize that machine gun. The small patrol immediately encountered resistance. Six Americans died in an initial gunfight, with three more wounded. York, then a new corporal, was suddenly the highest ranking able-bodied soldier. He ordered his men to guard prisoners they had taken in that first gunfight, and he attacked the machine gun position. When York ran out of rifle ammunition, he pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and continued fighting at German soldiers who had fixed bayonets for a charge against York. The German lieutenant in charge of the machine gun nest saw his losses and thought he was up against a much larger force, so he surrendered his position to Corporal York. In the end, York took the machine gun nest, along with 132 prisoners: four officers and 128 enlisted men.
News of York’s feat quickly spread, and the medals poured in immediately, including the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest combat medal. York’s commanders sought to have that award upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and that recognition happened quickly too (at least by the standards of such processes).
York became an international celebrity for his heroism, but also for his homespun demeanor and humble religious faith. Read, for example, this excerpt from his journal, widely circulated in the aftermath of York’s heroics:
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.
Two exchanges between York and his commanding officer received widespread attention. Immediately upon returning with his prisoners, General Julian R. Lindsey summoned York, and said, “Well York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German army.” York replied, “No sir. I got only 132.”
The action was so remarkable, and a Medal of Honor award so rare, that a later inquiry into the incident brought Lindsey and York together a second time, in 1919. General Lindsey asked York how he could possibly have accomplished such a feat.
York answered: “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”
To which Lindsey replied, “York, you are right.”
I want to be careful not to paint a “happily ever after” picture of York, or to glorify war. Alvin York had financial and other struggles after the war. Critics said some of his “homespun” utterances turned out to be the work of ghostwriters. In short, York was human.
But he lived a good life, for all that. A week after York returned home from Europe, he married his beloved Gracie Loretta, to whom he remained married until his death in 1964. Some of his financial difficulties came because he refused to take money for product endorsements, offers that would have made him a wealthy man. He refused to allow Hollywood to turn his life into a movie until 1940. By then, world war had once again broken out, and Hollywood and government officials told him a movie would aid the war effort. Also, York wanted to finance an interdenominational Bible school. For all these reasons, York agreed to cooperate with the making of the film. The resulting movie received 11 Academy Award nominations, and won Gary Cooper an Oscar for Best Actor. York’s earnings from the film, about $150,000, helped start that Bible college.
Today, a huge statue of York adorns the Tennessee state capitol grounds. The farm he shared with Gracie Loretta and his eight children after returning from World War I is now a state park. Other reminders of York dot 20th-century cultural history. Among them: The riderless horse at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral was named “Sgt. York.”
But perhaps the most interesting portrayal of York came from one of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren. In Warren’s 1943 novel “At Heaven’s Gate,” a character patterned after York comes home from World War I to a successful career as a politician and banker. He is an honest and decent man, but others exploit him. A major theme of the novel is the conflict between such traditional values as valor, honor, and humility and the cynical, self-promoting tendencies of the Modern Man.
Said another way: Alvin York’s life and legacy have much to teach us about our present age, as well.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.