Monday, August 23, 2010

Sergeant Alvin Cullum York 1887 – 1964

Alvin Cullum York (December 13, 1887 – September 2, 1964) was the most decorated American soldier in World War I. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others. This action occurred during the U.S.-led portion of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, which was part of a broader Allied offensive masterminded by Marshal Ferdinand Foch to breach the Hindenburg line and ultimately force the opposing German forces to capitulate.

Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children born to Mary Elizabeth Brooks (8 August 1866 - 21 May 1943) and William Uriah York (15 May 1863 – 17 November 1911). William Uriah York was born in Jamestown, Tennessee, to Uriah York and Eliza Jane Livingston, both travelers from Buncombe County, North Carolina. Mary Elizabeth York was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, to William Brooks and Nancy Pile, and was the great-granddaughter of Coonrod Pile, an English settler who settled Pall Mall in Tennessee. William York and Mary Brooks married on December 25, 1881, and had eleven children. The York siblings are, in order: Henry Singleton, Joseph Marion, Alvin Cullum, Samuel John, Albert, Hattie, George Alexander, James Preston, Lillian Mae, Robert Daniel, and Lucy Erma. The York family is of English, Irish, Choctaw, and Cherokee ancestry.

The York family resided in the Indian Creek area of Fentress County. The family was impoverished, with William York working as a blacksmith, by which he supplemented the family income. The father and sons of the York family would gather and harvest their own food, while the mother knitted all family clothing. The York sons only attended nine months of schooling, and withdrew from education because William York wanted his sons to assist him in tending to the family farm and hunting small game in order to feed the family.

When William York died in November 1911, his son Alvin assisted his mother in raising his younger siblings. Alvin was the oldest living sibling that was then-residing in the county, as his two older brothers had married and moved into more urban areas in the American South. In order to supplement the family income, York first held employment as a community laborer in Harriman, Tennessee, in which he assisted in the construction of a railroad and worked as a logger as well. By all accounts, he was a very skilled worker who was devoted to the welfare of his family. However, in the few years before the war, York was a violent alcoholic and prone to fighting in saloons, and had accumulated several arrests within the area. His mother, a member of a pacifist Protestant denomination, tried to persuade York to change his ways because she worried he would "amount to nothin'", however to no avail. In the winter of 1914, he and his friend engaged in a fight with other saloon patrons during a night of heavy drinking. The incident resulted in his friend Everett Delk being beaten to death inside a saloon in Clinton County, Kentucky. The event was profound enough that York finally followed his mother's advice and became a pacifist, and stopped drinking alcohol. York was baptized as a born again Christian in the Wolf River, with the baptism being conducted by Reverend H.H. Russell in early 1915.

In 1914, York joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a Protestant denomination, which had no specific doctrine of pacificism but opposed warfare and violence by all means. In a lecture later in life, he reported his reaction to the outbreak of World War I: "I was worried clean through. I didn't want to go and kill. I believed in my bible." On June 5, 1917, at the age of 29, Alvin York registered for the draft as all men between 21 and 31 years of age did on that day. 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." When his initial claim for conscientious objector status was denied, he appealed.

In World War I, conscientious objector status did not exempt one from military duty. Such individuals could still be drafted and were given assignments that did not conflict with their anti-war principles. In November 1917, while York's application was considered, he was drafted and began his army service at Camp Gordon in Georgia. There, extensive conversations with Major George Buxton challenged his pacifism and its Biblical basis until York decided he could and would serve.

From the day he registered for the draft until he arrived back from the war on May 29, 1919, York kept a diary of his activities. In his diary, York wrote that he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking a discharge from the Army on religious grounds. He refused to sign similar documents provided by his mother asserting a claim of exemption as the sole support of his mother and siblings. He disclaimed ever having been a conscientious objector.

York enlisted in the United States Army and served in Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Discussions of the Biblical stance on war with his company commander, Captain Edward Courtney Bullock Danforth (1894–1973) of Augusta, Georgia and his battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton (1880–1949) of Providence, Rhode Island, eventually convinced York that warfare could be justified.

During an attack by his battalion to secure German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chehery, France, on October 8, 1918, York's actions earned him the Medal of Honor. He recalled: "The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I'm telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard."

Four non-commissioned officers and thirteen privates under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early (which included York) were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the machine guns. The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. Early’s men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans: Corp. Murray Savage, and Pvts. Maryan E. Dymowski, Ralph E. Weiler, Fred Waring, William Wins and Walter E. Swanson, and wounding three others, Sgt. Early, Corp. William S. Cutting (AKA Otis B. Merrithew) and Pvt. Mario Muzzi. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge, which turned their weapons on the U.S. soldiers. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining U.S. soldiers, Privates Joseph Kornacki, Percy Beardsley, Feodor Sok, Thomas C. Johnson, Michael A. Saccina, Patrick Donohue and George W. Wills. As his men remained under cover, and guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.

York recalled: "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."

York, at the hill where his actions earned him the Medal of Honor, three months after the end of World War I on February 7, 1919

During the assault, a group of eight German soldiers in a trench near York were ordered to charge him with fixed bayonets. York had fired all the rounds in his rifle, but drew out his pistol and shot all eight of the soldiers before they could reach him.

One of York’s prisoners, German First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer (who spoke fluent English) of 1st Battalion, 120th Württemberg Landwehr Regiment, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered to surrender the unit to York, who gladly accepted. By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.

York was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism, but this was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, which was presented to York by the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. The French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. Italy and Montenegro awarded him the Croce di Guerra and War Medal, respectively.

York was a corporal during the action. His promotion to sergeant was part of the honor for his valor. Of his deeds, York said to his division commander, General George B. Duncan, in 1919: "A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do."

Awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, World War I Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, French Légion d'honneur, French Croix de guerre with Palm, Italian Croce di Guerra, Montenegrin War Medal

On June 7, 1919, Alvin C. York and Gracie Loretta Williams (February 7, 1900 - September 27, 1984) were married by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts in Pall Mall. They had seven children, all named after American historical figures: five sons (Alvin Cullum, Jr., Edward Buxton, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson) and two daughters (Betsy Ross and Mary Alice).

York founded the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute, a private agricultural school in Jamestown, Tennessee, that was eventually turned over to the State of Tennessee. The school, now known as Alvin C. York Institute, is the only fully state-funded public high school in the State of Tennessee. The school is a nationally recognized school of excellence and boasts the highest high school graduation percentage in the state. It is home to almost 800 students.

York also opened a Bible school and later operated a mill in Pall Mall on the Wolf River.

Alvin York died at the Veterans Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, on September 2, 1964, of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried at the Wolf River Cemetery in Pall Mall. His funeral sermon was delivered by Richard G. Humble, General Superintendent of the Churches of Christ in Christian Union. Humble also preached Mrs. York's funeral in 1984.

York's son, Thomas Jefferson York, was killed in the line of duty on May 7, 1972 while serving as a constable in Tennessee.

Medal of Honor Citation
Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Company G, 328th Infantry, 82d Division. Place and date: Near Chatel-Chehery, France, 8 October 1918. Entered service at: Pall Mall, Tenn. Born: 13 December 1887, Fentress County, Tenn. G.O. No.: 59, W.D., 1919. Citation: After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machinegun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.

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