WWI – Homegrown Hero

YorkIt was called the war to end all wars–a hopeful term. Folks hoped and prayed there would never be another so catastrophic and world-encompassing. We now know they were wrong.

I spent most of my early years in West Tennessee, and even then, so many years after World War I, Tennesseans still reveled in their local hero’s acclaim. I grew up watching the movie with Gary Cooper. I had no doubt, Sergeant York was a real-life hero.

A man who never wanted to go to war, Alvin Cullum York filed for conscientious objector status. This would not exempt him from service, but would put him in a non-combat position. When the initial claim was denied, he appealed. While the appeal was being considered, he was drafted, so entered the United States Army and began his initial training for service.

York kept a diary, and in it, denied that he’d ever been a conscientious objector. He stated he’d refused to sign papers given him by his pastor and his mother, to file for the appeal. None of that really matters, because in the end, he did go. He became one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I.

As a boy, York was denied schooling by his father, to stay at home and work in the fields and hunt so their large family would not starve. After his father died, Alvin became the head of the household. He was a crack shot, a talent that would one day help win a decisive battle in France.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know the incredible feats that earned Alvin York the medals and recognition. What he had to say about it reveals a lot about the man. “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

What did he do? In his own words: “As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. 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.” —http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/us-soldier-alvin-york-displays-heroics-at-argonne

With 7 men, Corporal York led an attack on a German machine gun nest, took 32 machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers, and with the help of a German officer previously retained, he captured 132 German soldiers. He was soon afterwards advanced to Sergeant.

The war to end all wars changed the world and put the tiny burg of Pall Mall, Tennessee on the map. Alvin York became a household name. Little boys pretended to be him, running up on the enemy and somehow avoiding the amazing volley of bullets to win the day. A boy who’d endured much hardship grew up tough as nails and maybe dumb enough to believe God was for him, so who could stand against him?

Photograph: “York“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Betty Thomason Owens

2 thoughts on “WWI – Homegrown Hero

  1. Thank you, Betty. Like many (most?) Americans, I’ve heard that name, Sgt. York, several times having no idea to whom it was referring, nor why he was so famous.

    • Thanks, Don. I’m always surprised by that! My dad was a big fan of his also, which probably made me more aware of him. Parts of the movie were so funny, such as the turkey shoot, which they tied in to the battle scenes.

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