Alvin York (1887-1964) was one of the great American heroes of World War I. He went from a poor, backwoods Tennessee boy to a national celebrity almost overnight. After his heroics in the war, the offers for movies, advertisements, and books poured in, but York turned them all down. He never sought the spotlight or fame. He served his country and went home to help his community.
Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children. The York family was anything but wealthy. Alvin’s father, William, worked as a blacksmith to provide for the family. Alvin and his brothers would gather and harvest their own food, while their mother knit all the family clothing.
The York sons could only attend school a total of nine months before they were forced to withdraw from school and help sustain the family farm and hunt small game to feed the family. Naturally, guns were a major part of the Yorks’ livelihood. Hunting was more of a necessity than a sport in the mountains, and Alvin quickly acquired a reputation as the best marksman and hunter in the county. Shooting matches were popular in Fentress County, Tennessee, and Alvin often outshot all his opponents.
When Alvin was only 24 years old, his father passed away. Being the oldest remaining son at home, Alvin was left to help his mother raise his younger siblings. So he took a job on a railroad construction crew and another working as a logger. It wasn’t long before the hard work and pressure began to affect Alvin. In the few years building up to World War I, he became a violent alcoholic who often fought in saloons and was arrested several times. In his own words, he was “hog-wild.”
Alvin’s mother, a devout Protestant, tried her hardest to persuade Alvin to repent and change his ways. Sadly, her pleas fell on deaf ears until one unfortunate night. In the winter of 1914, Alvin and his friend Everett Delk got in a fight with other saloon patrons after an evening of heavy drinking. The incident ended with Delk beaten to death inside the saloon. The event was painful enough for Alvin that he finally followed his mother’s advice and became a pacifist and stopped drinking alcohol. He was baptized as a Christian in the Wolf River in early 1915.
Having completely changed his ways, York later wrote, “I am a great deal like Paul [the apostle], the things I once loved I now hate.”
Only two years after his conversion, Alvin York was drafted into the United States Army to serve in World War I. Being a Bible-believing pacifist but also a proud patriot and supporter of his country, York was torn over his proper duty in the war. At first he tried to get an exemption based on his religious convictions. When he registered for the draft, he answered the question, “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” by writing, “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.”
York filed four appeals on religious grounds; all were rejected. Still wrestling in his mind over the virtue of war, he was miserable during his first weeks of military service. He remained silent about his uncertainties until he found out he would be assigned to a combat unit headed to Europe. His company commander sent him to see battalion commander General George Edward Buxton. He and York spent hours discussing the Bible’s teachings about war.
Ultimately, Buxton gave him a 10-day pass to return home and think things through. Buxton agreed to discharge him if he hadn’t changed his mind by the time he returned.
York spent two days in the Tennessee mountains soul searching and asking for God’s wisdom. One biblical verse in particular weighed heavily on his heart: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Gradually, York came to the epiphany that the only way to keep peace in this world would be to engage the Germans on the terms they understood—war.
York returned to duty in April 1918, and shortly afterward his division set sail for France. In late June, they were commissioned to serve on the Western Front. Life in the trenches was anything but comfortable. Bullets constantly whizzed overhead, bombs dropped from above, and you never knew when the enemy would charge your trench without warning. In his off hours, York read his Bible. In his diary he wrote, “The only thing to do was to pray and trust God.”
On October 8, 1918, York’s division was part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in northeast France. After his regiment was pinned down by enemy machine-gun fire, York spearheaded a seven-man unit designed to silence the machine guns and allow the regiment to push forward. His squad had already taken two casualties when York found himself face-to-face with a German machine-gun company with just a rifle and a pistol.
Using his rifle, York picked off any Germans who popped their heads above the trenches. Then, when six Germans rushed him with bayonets, he grabbed his pistol and killed all six. He quickly positioned himself at the end of the German trench and began mowing down Germans as they stood in line. When the dust settled and the fight ended, 25 Germans were dead. Stunned and scared, the remaining 132 Germans surrendered to York and his unit.
Describing the fight in his diary, York said,
There were over 30 of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharpshooting. I don’t think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. 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. (Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation: “Sgt. Alvin C. York’s Diary: October 8, 1918”)
York’s heroics elevated him to the heights of an American hero. He was later promoted to sergeant and received the Congressional Medal of Honor along with 50 other decorations and honors. When he returned to the United States, York was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for endorsements, newspaper articles, and movie roles. Being the simple Tennessee man that he was, York wrote, “They offered so much money that it almost takened my breath away.”
In the end, York refused the money and returned home to Tennessee. Looking beyond himself and his own personal gains, he believed God had chosen him to “bring the benefits of an industrial society to his neighbors … [and that] the war had been part of God’s plan to prepare him for a life of service [to his neighbors].” He said, “My ambition … is to devote my time improving conditions here in the mountains.”
Fentress County had no full-time elementary school. His people lacked well-built roads, schools, libraries, homes, and modern farming techniques. To raise the standard of living in the Tennessee mountains, York set up the Alvin C. York Foundation to improve education with an elementary school, an industrial school, and a Bible school. In 1929, the York Agricultural Institute opened its doors to provide vocational training. Of all his accomplishments, York considered this to be his greatest.