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U.S. soldier Alvin York displays heroics at Argonne

U.S. soldier Alvin York displays heroics at Argonne


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On October 8, 1918, United States Corporal Alvin C. York reportedly kills over 20 German soldiers and captures an additional 132 at the head of a small detachment in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France. The exploits later earned York the Medal of Honor.

Born in 1887 in a log cabin near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, York was the third of 11 children in a family supported by subsistence farming and hunting. After experiencing a religious conversion, he became a fundamentalist Christian around 1915. Two years later, when the United States entered World War I, York was drafted into the U.S. Army. After being denied conscientious-objector status, York enlisted in the 82nd Infantry Division and in May 1918 arrived in France for active duty on the Western Front. He served in the successful Saint-Mihiel offensive in September of that year, was promoted to corporal and given command of his own squad.

The events of October 8, 1918, took place as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive—what was to be the final Allied push against German forces on the Western Front during World War I. York and his battalion were given the task of seizing German-held positions across a valley; after encountering difficulties, the small group of soldiers—numbering some 17 men—were fired upon by a German machine-gun nest at the top of a nearby hill. The gunners cut down nine men, including a superior officer, leaving York in charge of the squad.

As York wrote in his diary of his subsequent actions: “[T]hose machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful…. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down…. 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.”

Several other American soldiers followed York’s lead and began firing; as they drew closer to the machine-gun nest, the German commander—thinking he had underestimated the size of the enemy squadron—surrendered his garrison of some 90 men. On the way back to the Allied lines, York and his squad took more prisoners, for a total of 132. Though Alvin York consistently played down his accomplishments of that day, he was given credit for killing more than 20 German soldiers. Promoted to the rank of sergeant, he remained on the front lines until November 1, 10 days before the armistice. In April 1919, York was awarded the highest American military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Lauded by The New York Times as “the war’s biggest hero” and by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), as “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I, York went on to found a school for underprivileged children, the York Industrial Institute (now Alvin C. York Institute), in rural Tennessee. In 1941, his heroism became the basis for a movie, Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Upon York’s death in 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called him “a symbol of American courage and sacrifice” who epitomized “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”


Alvin York and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

October 8, 1918, was a hard morning for the 2nd Württemberg Landwehr Division at Châtel Chéhéry, France. The German division’s infantry regiments, the 122nd, 120th and 125th, were barely holding onto their piece of the Argonne Forest against an attack by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Division. Fortunately for the Germans, the Argonne favored the defense — and the Americans favored it further by attacking up a funnel-shaped valley right into a deathtrap.

In the thick of the fight was Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer. Vollmer, or ‘Kuno, as his friends called him, was a highly decorated officer who had recently assumed command of the 120th Württemberg Landwehr Regiment’s 1st Battalion, most of whose soldiers were from Ulm (in the semiautonomous German state of Württemberg), where Vollmer had been the assistant postmaster before the war.

Vollmer was directing his troops against the Americans when his battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Karl Glass, approached. Vollmer hoped that this was not another report that the Americans had penetrated the German lines. Such rumors had been common since October 2, when the so-called Lost Battalion of the U.S. 77th Infantry Division broke through a few miles west of his sector. Vollmer was relieved to hear that elements of the Prussian 210th Reserve Infantry Regiment had just arrived at his battalion command post 200 yards up the valley. The 210th was what Vollmer needed to push the Americans out of this portion of the Argonne. Vollmer told Glass to follow him to meet with the 210th’s commander, since they had only one hour to be ready for the counterattack.

Upon arriving at his headquarters, Vollmer was appalled to find that 70 soldiers of the 210th had laid down their arms and were eating breakfast. When he rebuffed them for their lack of preparedness, the weary Prussians replied, We hiked all night, and first of all we need something to eat. Vollmer told Glass to go back to the front and ordered the 210th to move quickly. He then wheeled around to rejoin his battalion.

Suddenly, down the side of the far hill, a group of German soldiers came running to the command post yelling, Die Amerikaner Kommen! Then, off to the right, Vollmer saw a group of 210th soldiers drop their weapons and yell, Kamerad, their hands high in the air. Bewildered, Vollmer drew his pistol and ordered them to pick up their weapons. Behind Vollmer came several Americans charging down the hill. Believing it was a large American attack, the 210th surrendered. Before Vollmer realized what had happened, a large American with a red mustache, broad features and a freckled face had captured him as well. That Yank, from the 82nd Division, was Corporal Alvin C. York.

Much has been written about York, but all the previous accounts have one significant flaw: They do not tell the German side of the story. In the course of recent research, hundreds of pages of archival information from across Germany have come to light, uncovering the full story of what happened on October 8.

October 7, 1918 — Initial German Defense
The German side of York’s story began on October 7, as the 2nd Württemberg Landwehr Division was preparing defensive positions along the eastern edge of the Argonne. Vollmer’s 1st Battalion, 120th Regiment, was the last of the division to pull back to the valley behind Châtel Chéhéry to serve as the reserve. This was welcome news for Vollmer’s men, who had been in the thick of the fighting since the Americans launched their Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 26, but the 10-kilometer move, harassed by American artillery, took most of the day before the battalion finally arrived near Châtel Chéhéry.

While Vollmer’s men were on the march, the U.S. 82nd Infantry Division moved into Châtel Chéhéry and prepared to attack Castle Hill and a smaller position a kilometer to the north, designated Hill 180 by the Americans but called Schöne Aussicht (Pleasant View) by the Germans. Both objectives were important, but Castle Hill, or Hill 223, as the Americans called it, was vital. Whoever controlled it controlled access to that sector of the Argonne. Elements of the German 125th Württemberg Landwehr, the Guard Elizabeth Battalion and the 47th Machine Gun Company were given the mission of holding that hill, under the overall command of Captain Heinrich Müller.
On October 7, the 1st Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Division attacked. Battalion Müller fought tenaciously but was pushed back to the western slope of Castle Hill. There, the Germans held on through the night at great loss and even attempted a counterattack. The 82nd Division also captured Hill 180. The near-complete losses of Castle Hill and Pleasant View put the Germans’ grip on the Argonne at serious risk.

General Max von Gallwitz, the German army group commander in the region, monitored these developments with grave concern and directed the 45th Prussian Reserve Division’s 212th Reserve Infantry Regiment to help the 125th Landwehr to retake Pleasant View and the 210th Reserve Infantry Regiment to assist the 120th Landwehr in recapturing Castle Hill. Those counterattacks would occur at 1030 hours on October 8. Vollmer would lead the assault on Castle Hill.

As the 2nd Württemberg Division prepared its defenses on October 7, Vollmer’s 4th Company commander, Lieutenant Fritz Endriss, identified gaps between his unit and the 2nd Machine Gun Company. One of Endriss’ platoon leaders, Lieutenant Karl Kübler, told Vollmer, I regard our situation as very dangerous, for the Americans could easily pass through the gaps in the sector of the 2nd Machine Gun Company and gain our rear. Vollmer directed Kübler to establish liaison with the 2nd Machine Gun Company. Failing to do that, Kübler sent Vollmer a message, I will, on my own responsibility, occupy Hill 2 with part of 4th Company. But Vollmer replied, You will hold the position to which you have been assigned.

October 8 — American Attack and German Counterattack
Three significant threats faced General Georg von der Marwitz, the German Fifth Army commander, on October 8. First, there was the Amerikaner nest along the western edge of the Argonne Forest, where an isolated element of the 77th U.S. Infantry Division was proving to be more than the neighboring 76th German Reserve Division could handle. That saga began on October 2, when 590 American soldiers penetrated a mile into German lines and settled down for five days in a 600-meter-long pocket. Despite several concerted German attacks, the Americans refused to surrender. Meanwhile the 77th Division launched attack after attack to relieve its Lost Battalion. Although unsuccessful thus far, these attacks were taking a heavy toll on the 76th Reserve Division. If the 76th failed to eliminate the Lost Battalion, Marwitz’s flank would be exposed.

A second problem was the advance of the U.S. 82nd and 28th divisions to secure the eastern part of the Argonne, which could sever German lines of communication in the forest and protect the flank of the main American attack in the Meuse River valley. The third trouble spot, and the most dangerous to the German Fifth Army, was the Meuse Valley, just east of the Argonne Forest. It was there that General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, sent the bulk of his First Army with the goal of ultimately cutting the main German supply artery in Sedan, some 30 miles to the north.

The 2nd Landwehr Division chronicled the German predicament in the region. Concerned about the situation, general headquarters committed elements of the 1st Guard Infantry Division, a portion of the 52nd Reserve Division, the 210th and 212th regiments of the 45th Reserve Division and the Machine Gun Sharpshooters of Regiments 47 and 58 to the fight. Headquarters reports stated: We had to stop the enemy’s main attack, which was now east of the Aire [in the Meuse River valley]. So our artillery around Hohenbornhöhe was used to provide fires against his flank.

Meanwhile, German lookouts reported American soldiers making their way toward Castle Hill. This was the 2nd Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division — York’s battalion — which would attack via Castle Hill in a northwesterly direction after a 10-minute artillery barrage. The battalion would advance one mile across a funnel-shaped valley and seize a dual objective: the Decauville rail line and the North-South Road. These were the main German supply lines into the Argonne. The Americans had no idea that the Germans had positioned more than 50 machine guns and dug in several hundred troops to kill anything that dared move into that valley.

Fog blanketed the Aire River valley below the Argonne early on October 8. Things started to look up for Vollmer after the 7th Bavarian Sapper Company, under a Lieutenant Thoma, and a detachment of the 210th Prussian Reserve Regiment reported for duty. He placed the two units among the gaps on Hill 2 that Kübler and Endriss had previously complained about. It was 0610 hours.

Suddenly, out of the early morning fog, the Germans heard the uproar of an enemy infantry force attacking in the valley, where the stillness was shattered by the whine of ricocheting bullets. The Americans headed into the valley without a preparatory barrage because their supporting artillery unit had not received word to fire. The alarm was sounded across the 2nd Landwehr Division, whose troops quickly manned their positions. The American advance was immediately contested by Battalion Müller, which held on until it ran out of ammunition. After that, the Germans retreated across the valley to the forward trenches of the 125th Regiment. With Battalion Müller out of the way, the Americans cleared Castle Hill and plunged into the valley. They were greeted with heavy rifle and machine gun fire from hundreds of German soldiers dug in on the three surrounding hills. Vollmer moved forward with his battalion to bolster the 2nd Machine Gun and 7th Bavarian companies, which bore the brunt of the attack. After weeks of setbacks, it seemed that at last the Germans would take back the initiative in the Argonne. Alvin York later described that crucial engagement:

So you see we were getting it from the front and both flanks. Well, the first and second waves got about halfway across the valley and then were held up by machine gun fire from the three sides. It was awful. Our losses were very heavy. The advancement was stopped and we were ordered to dig in. I don’t believe our whole battalion or even our whole division could have taken those machine guns by a straightforward attack.

The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. It was hilly country with plenty of brush, and they had plenty of machine guns entrenched along those commanding ridges. And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. So our attack just faded out. And there we were, lying down, about halfway across, and no barrage, and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.

Among the Americans trapped in that fight was Sergeant Harry Parson, who ordered Acting Sergeant Bernard Early to lead a platoon of 17 men behind the Germans and take out the machine guns. York was part of that group. While the three American squads moved toward German-occupied Hill 2, a terrific commotion shook the area as American artillery belatedly opened up in support of the besieged 328th Infantry. The barrage inadvertently covered the movement of Early’s men, who found a gap in the lines. They made their way through it and into the German rear area. Despite that, Vollmer felt confident of victory. As the German 120th report stated: Without any artillery preparation, the adversary launched a violent attack and there was heavy fighting….The enemy was repulsed almost everywhere. 1st BN absorbed the brunt of the enemy attack without wavering, due to its good defensive position.

It was at that point in the fight that Vollmer, learning from Lieutenant Glass that the 210th had at last arrived, returned to his command post to find the 210th eating breakfast. He was taken prisoner before he had a chance to rectify the situation. Glass, who returned to the front lines moments before Vollmer departed, went back to the command post to report that he had seen American troops moving on the hill above. Before he realized it, Glass too was York’s prisoner. Everything occurred so suddenly that both Vollmer and the 210th Regimental soldiers believed that this was a large surprise attack by the Americans.

As the 17 Americans busily gathered their 70-plus prisoners, the 4th and 6th companies of the 125th Württemberg Landwehr on Humser Hill saw what was happening below. They signaled to the captured Germans to lie down and then opened fire. The hail of bullets killed six and wounded three of their captors. Several prisoners were also killed by the machine-gunners, which caused the surviving captured men to wave their hands wildly in the air and yell, Don’t shoot — there are Germans here! Lieutenant Paul Adolph August Lipp, commander of the 6th Company, had his men aim more carefully. He brought up riflemen to join the machine-gunners in killing the Americans.

Of the eight American survivors, Corporal York was the only noncommissioned officer still standing. He worked his way partly up the slope where the German machine-gunners were. For the gunners to fire at York, they had to expose their heads above their positions. Whenever York saw a German helmet, he fired his .30-caliber rifle, hitting his target every time.

Vollmer, the nearest to York, was appalled to see 25 of his comrades fall victim to the Tennessean’s unerring marksmanship. At least three machine gun crews were killed in this manner, all while York, a devout Christian who did not want to kill any more than he had to, intermittently yelled at them to Give up and come on down. Meanwhile Lieutenant Endriss, seeing that Vollmer was in trouble, led a valiant charge against York. York used a hunting skill he learned when faced with a flock of turkeys. He knew that if the first soldier was shot, those behind would take cover. To prevent that, he fired his M1911 Colt .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, targeting the men from the back to the front. The last German he shot was Endriss, who fell to the ground screaming in agony. York later wrote in his diary that he had shot five German soldiers and an officer like wild turkeys with his pistol.

Vollmer was not sure how many Germans were killed in that assault, but knew it was a lot. Worse yet, his wounded friend Endriss needed help. In the middle of the fight, Vollmer, who had lived in Chicago before the war, stood up, walked over to York and yelled above the din of battle, English? York replied, No, not English. Vollmer then inquired, What? American, York answered. Vollmer exclaimed: Good Lord! If you won’t shoot any more I will make them give up.
York told him to go ahead. Vollmer blew a whistle and yelled an order. Upon hearing Vollmer’s order, Lipp told his men on the hill above to drop their weapons and make their way down the hill to join the other prisoners.

York directed Vollmer to line up the Germans in a column and have them carry out the six wounded Americans. He then placed the German officers at the head of the formation, with Vollmer in the lead. York stood directly behind him, with the .45-caliber Colt pointed at the German’s back. Vollmer suggested that York take the men down a gully in front of Humser Hill to the left, which was still occupied by a large group of German soldiers. Sensing a trap, York took them instead down the road that skirted Hill 2 and led back to Castle Hill and Châtel Chéhéry.

Meanwhile, forward of York and the prisoners was Lieutenant Kübler and his platoon. He told his second in command, Warrant Officer Haegele, that things just don’t look right. Kübler ordered his men to follow him to the battalion command post. As they approached, he was surrounded by several of York’s men. Kübler and his platoon surrendered. Vollmer told them to drop their weapons and equipment belts.

Lieutenant Thoma, the 7th Bavarian commander, was not far off and heard Vollmer’s order to Kübler to surrender. Thoma ordered his men to follow him with fixed bayonets and yelled to the 100-plus German prisoners, Don’t take off your belts! Thoma’s men took a position near the road for a fight. York shoved his pistol in Vollmer’s back and demanded that he order Thoma to surrender.

Vollmer cried out, You must surrender! Thoma insisted that he would not. It is useless, Vollmer said. We are surrounded. Thoma then said, I will do so on your responsibility! Vollmer replied that he would take all responsibility. With that, Thoma and his group, which included elements of the 2nd Machine Gun Company, dropped their weapons and belts and joined the prisoners.

As the large formation crossed the valley, York’s battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Joseph A. Woods, saw the group of men and, believing that it was a German counterattack, gathered as many soldiers as he could for a fight. After a closer look, however, he realized that the Germans were unarmed. York, at the head of the formation, saluted and said, Corporal York reports with prisoners, sir.

How many prisoners have you, Corporal?

Honest Lieutenant, York replied, I don’t know. Woods, who must have been stunned but kept his composure, ordered, Take them back to Châtel Chéhéry, and I will count them as they go by. His count: 132 Germans.

German Line in the Argonne Shattered
York’s men frustrated the German counterattack plan and bagged elements of the 120th Regiment, 210th Prussian Reserve Regiment, 7th Bavarian Company, 2nd Machine Gun Company and 125th Landwehr. This cleared the front and enabled the Americans to press on up the valley to take their objective, the Decauville rail line and the North-South Road. The German line was broken, and the 120th Landwehr would never recover from the day’s losses. Its report stated: The flank of 6th Company reported an enemy surprise attack. Next, the remnant of 4th Company and personnel from the 210th Regiment were caught by this surprise attack, where Lieutenant Endriss was killed. The company was shattered or was captured. Also First Lieutenant Vollmer ended up in the enemy’s hands. Now the situation was worse.

The planned German counterattack to take Castle and Pleasant View hills had been preempted by York and his men. If the 82nd Infantry Division pressed the attack now, it could cause the collapse of German defenses in the Argonne and lead to the capture of thousands of troops, supplies and artillery. But the American 328th Infantry had taken such a beating that it did not take advantage of this opportunity. Shortly after that the Germans were ordered to withdraw from the Argonne. The 120th Wurttenberg Infantry’s report noted:

[We received] the depressing order at 1030 to withdraw. In good order did we move. We did have some luck….There was no fire on the North-South Road. But we did see terrible things on the road. The results of the artillery dead men, dead horses, destroyed vehicles blocking the way and destroyed trees were scattered to and fro. And what about the enemy? The North-South Road was closed by machine gun fire. This happened around 1200….It was amazing that the Americans did not press the attack. In the afternoon of 8 October, the headquarters of 3rd and 5th Army ordered a withdrawal from the Argonne line.

On October 9, the final order was issued to withdraw into the fortified Hindenburg Line for the final defense before the war ended. It was now that General von der Marwitz, the leader of 5th Army, gave the last word, the 120th’s report stated. We needed to occupy the secondary defensive positions further back. In the evening of 9/10 October, the regiment departed from the Argonne. The German soldiers gave so much after hard battles since 1914 — more than 80,000 dead were left here. American artillery briefly hit the Humserberg line during the retreat and always there was the shrapnel. We were dead tired, too tired to contemplate, but able to hold onto hope.

Postscript
Paul Vollmer served on the Western Front for four years. He fought with the 125th and 120th Württemberg Landwehr Infantry regiments in 10 campaigns and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class in 1914, the Knights Cross 2nd Class in 1915 and the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Queen Olga of Württemberg Medal in 1918. Released in 1919, he moved to Stuttgart, where he again became a postmaster. In 1929 Vollmer was asked to provide a statement about the events of October 8, 1918, to the German Archives in Potsdam, which he did not want to do. After several formal requests, he arrived to answer questions. He was visibly uneasy about submitting a formal report. Vollmer insisted that there was a large group of Americans, not just York and his small squad. It must have seemed impossible that so few men could have captured so many highly trained German soldiers.

Alvin Cullum York was promoted to sergeant and received the Medal of Honor for his deeds of October 8. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre and several other medals. After the war, he returned to his hometown of Pall Mall, Tenn., where the people of his state gave him a house and a farm. He married his sweetheart, Gracie Williams, and they raised seven children — five boys and two girls. The faith that brought him through the war stayed with him throughout his life. An October 1918 diary entry just after the Argonne fight summarized his view of life: I am a witness to the fact that God did help me out of that hard battle for the bushes were shot up all around me and I never got a scratch.


Alvin York’s WWI Heroics

U.S. #3395 – Alvin York was one America’s most decorated soldiers of the war, earning the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross, among others.

On October 8, 1918, Alvin York became an American hero after single-handedly defeating a German machine gun battalion.

York was an expert marksman from his time spent hunting food for his family. In 1911, he declared himself a pacifist and would later return his draft papers when the U.S. entered World War I. After receiving a second draft notice, he reported for duty and was convinced by his commander that the Bible supported the service.

Item #20026 – Special event cover honoring the anniversary of York’s birth. It features the Medal of Honor and Tennessee (York’s home state) stamps.

York went on to gain fame for his actions in the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918. After losing his superior officer and eight other men, York became leader of the small squadron. Serving as an acting corporal, he led 17 men against a German stronghold, with the goal of taking the position and capturing prisoners. They fared well at the start – taking several captives and no enemy fire. The Germans then launched a counterattack, killing six of York’s men.

York then left his remaining 11 men behind to guard the prisoners while he set out to finish the mission. York took out 17 gunners with his sniper rifle before being charged by seven soldiers who realized he was the only one they were fighting. After killing them all with just his pistol, York completed his mission and brought back a total of 132 German prisoners. York was promoted to sergeant for his actions.

U.S. #3395 – Alvin York Fleetwood First Day Cover.

When he returned to the states, he was greeted as a hero. General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force called York “the greatest civilian soldier” of the war. His home state of Tennessee rewarded him with a farm. Later, a movie was made about his life. He used the royalties he received from the film to fund a Bible college.

When Sergeant York died in 1964, President Johnson said the soldier was an example of “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”


On October 8, 1918, Alvin York became an American hero after single-handedly defeating a German machine gun battalion.

York was an expert marksman from his time spent hunting food for his family. In 1911, he declared himself a pacifist and would later return his draft papers when the U.S. entered World War I. After receiving a second draft notice, he reported for duty and was convinced by his commander that the Bible supported the service.

Item #20026 – Special event cover honoring the anniversary of York’s birth. It features the Medal of Honor and Tennessee (York’s home state) stamps.

York went on to gain fame for his actions in the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918. After losing his superior officer and eight other men, York became leader of the small squadron. Serving as an acting corporal, he led 17 men against a German stronghold, with the goal of taking the position and capturing prisoners. They fared well at the start – taking several captives and no enemy fire. The Germans then launched a counterattack, killing six of York’s men.

York then left his remaining 11 men behind to guard the prisoners while he set out to finish the mission. York took out 17 gunners with his sniper rifle before being charged by seven soldiers who realized he was the only one they were fighting. After killing them all with just his pistol, York completed his mission and brought back a total of 132 German prisoners. York was promoted to sergeant for his actions.

When he returned to the states, he was greeted as a hero. General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force called York “the greatest civilian soldier” of the war. His home state of Tennessee rewarded him with a farm. Later, a movie was made about his life. He used the royalties he received from the film to fund a Bible college.

When Sergeant York died in 1964, President Johnson said the soldier was an example of “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”

Click the images to discover more history and add them to your collection.


World War I and Moral Confusion

With the United States' entry into World War I in April 1917, York became concerned that he would be required to serve. These worries became reality when he received his draft registration notice. Consulting with his pastor, he was advised to seek conscientious objector status. On June 5, York registered for the draft as required by law, but wrote on his draft card, "Don't want to fight."

When his case was reviewed by local and state draft authorities, his request was denied as his church was not a recognized Christian sect. In addition, during this period conscientious objectors were still drafted and typically assigned non-combat roles. In November, York was drafted into the U.S. Army, and though his conscientious objector status was considered, he was sent to basic training.


Alvin York : A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Alvin C. York (1887--1964) -- devout Christian, conscientious objector, and reluctant hero of World War I -- is one of America's most famous and celebrated soldiers. Known to generations through Gary Cooper's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 1941 film Sergeant York, York is credited with the capture of 132 German soldiers on October 8, 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne region of France -- a deed for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

At war's end, the media glorified York's bravery but some members of the German military and a soldier from his own unit cast aspersions on his wartime heroics. Historians continue to debate whether York has received more recognition than he deserves. A fierce disagreement about the location of the battle in the Argonne forest has further complicated the soldier's legacy.

In Alvin York, Douglas V. Mastriano sorts fact from myth in the first full-length biography of York in decades. He meticulously examines York's youth in the hills of east Tennessee, his service in the Great War, and his return to a quiet civilian life dedicated to charity. By reviewing artifacts recovered from the battlefield using military terrain analysis, forensic study, and research in both German and American archives, Mastriano reconstructs the events of October 8 and corroborates the recorded accounts. On the eve of the WWI centennial, Alvin York promises to be a major contribution to twentieth-century military history.


V tento den v roce 1918 desátník Spojených států Alvin C. York údajně zabil více než 20 německých vojáků a dalších 132 vojáků zachytil v čele malého oddělení v Argonském lese poblíž řeky Meuse ve Francii. Za vykořisťování později získal York čestnou medaili Kongresu.

York, který se narodil v roce 1887 ve srubu poblíž hranice Tennessee-Kentucky, byl třetí z 11 dětí v rodině podporované živobytím a lovem. Po náboženské konverzi se stal kolem roku 1915 fundamentalistickým křesťanem. O dva roky později, když Spojené státy vstoupily do první světové války, byl York zařazen do americké armády. Poté, co byl York odepřen status svědomí-odpůrce, se zaregistroval do 82. pěší divize a v květnu 1918 přijel do Francie pro aktivní službu na západní frontě. V září téhož roku sloužil v úspěšné ofenzivě Saint-Mihiel, byl povýšen na desátníka a byl pověřen svým vlastním týmem.

Události 8. října 1918 se odehrály v rámci ofenzívy Meuse-Argonne, která měla být posledním spojeneckým tlačením proti německým silám na západní frontě během první světové války. York a jeho prapor dostali za úkol zmocnit se němčiny - držení pozic přes údolí poté, co se setkaly s obtížemi, byla malá skupina vojáků, kteří čítají asi 17 mužů, vypálena německým kulometným hnízdem na vrcholu nedalekého kopce. Střelci omezili devět mužů, včetně nadřízeného, ​​a nechali York na starosti čety.

Jak York psal ve svém deníku o svých následných akcích: „hadicové kulomety plivaly oheň a řezaly podrosty kolem mě něco hrozného…. Neměl jsem čas se vyhnout za strom nebo se ponořit do štětce, neměl jsem ani čas si klečet nebo lehnout . Jakmile kulomety začaly střílet na mě, začal jsem si s nimi vyměňovat střely. Aby se na mě podívali, nebo aby na mě házeli své kulomety, museli Němci ukazovat hlavy nad příkopem a pokaždé, když jsem viděl hlavu, právě jsem se jí dotkl. Po celou dobu jsem na ně křičel, aby sestupovali. Nechtěl jsem zabíjet víc, než jsem musel. Ale byly to oni nebo já. A dával jsem jim to nejlepší, co jsem měl. “

Několik dalších amerických vojáků následovalo Yorkův náskok a začalo střílet Když se blížili k kulometnému hnízdě, německý velitel si pomyslel, že podcenil velikost nepřátelské perutě, která vyslala jeho posádku asi 90 mužů. Na cestě zpět do spojeneckých linií York a jeho skupina vzali více vězňů, celkem 132. Přestože Alvin York důsledně hrál své úspěchy toho dne, dostal uznání za zabití více než 20 německých vojáků. Povýšen do hodnosti seržanta, zůstal na frontách až do 1. listopadu 10 dní před příměří. V dubnu 1919, York byl vyznamenán nejvyšší americkou vojenskou výzdobou, Medal of Honor.

Lauded by The New York Times Jako „největší hrdina války“ a generál John J. Pershing, velitel americké expediční síly (AEF), jako „největší civilní voják“ první světové války, York pokračoval založením školy pro znevýhodněné děti, York Průmyslový institut (nyní Alvin C. York Institute), ve venkovském Tennessee. V roce 1941 se jeho hrdinství stalo základem filmu, Seržant York, hrát Garyho Coopera. Po smrti Yorku v roce 1964 ho prezident USA Lyndon Johnson nazval „symbolem americké odvahy a oběti“, který ztělesňoval „statečnost amerických bojujících mužů a jejich oběti za svobodu“.


The Testimony of Alvin C. York

The Argonne Forest, France, October 8, 1918. After his platoon suffered heavy casualties, Alvin York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four German officers and 128 men and several guns.

The Making of a Man of Character

Alvin York was born into a poor family in Tennessee on December 13, 1887. When Alvin’s father died, York said:

I got in bad company and…got to drinking and gambling…I used to drink a lot of moonshine and had a lot of fist fights.

On January 1, 1915, Alvin attended a revival meeting conducted by Reverend H.H. Russell. During the sermon, York felt as if lightning hit his soul and was moved to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. From this point on his life was forever changed and he stopped “smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing and brawling.”

York took this commitment seriously, grew in his faith, taught Sunday school, led the choir and eventually became an elder in his church. York’s old friends tried to persuade him to go drinking, but he refused. It took moral courage for York to remain committed to the Lord, but with the strength of the Holy Spirit and personal resolve, York prevailed. This sharpened York’s character and moral courage, directly contributing to his heroic deeds in the midst of battle only two years later.

Thou Shall Not Kill

York immersed himself in the “trinity of Christian growth”: prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. As Alvin grew in his faith, World War I raged across Europe with the U.S. entering the fray in 1917. Alvin’s world turned upside down in June 1917 when he received a draft notice. When he read “Thou shall not kill” in the Bible, he took it literally. However, he also believed that God ordained governments as instruments to be obeyed. Alvin York summed up this dilemma when he said:

I wanted to follow both [the Bible and the U.S.]. But I couldn’t. I wanted to do what was right…If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to the reading of my Bible, I [wasn’t] a good Christian.

York applied for exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector, but his request was denied. This put York into doubt and confusion. He trusted God to get him out of what he perceived as doing something contrary to the Bible. As he said:

I was [sort of messed] up inside [worse than] ever. I thought that the Word of God would prevail against the laws of men….

York did not know what was ahead, but reported for duty to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. York’s Company Commander, Captain Danforth, and Battalion Commander, Major Buxton, were both committed Christians. Buxton and Danforth knew their Bible and dedicated hours of their time to contend with York’s doubts. They literally walked through the Bible together to debate the issue. For every verse the commanders used to support their position on warfare, York countered. Finally, Danforth read Ezekiel 33:6 ––

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

With this, York said, “All right, I’m satisfied” and resolved to serve as a soldier. Armed with this assurance, he sought to excel in all that was entrusted to him.

Argonne Forest, France

October 8, 1918 –– Argonne Forest, France. It was another wet and foggy morning along the edge of the rugged Argonne Forest. At precisely 6:10 a.m., the battalion attacked, with a mission to take the German Decauville Railroad in the midst of the forest. This would force the Germans out of the Argonne. The attack would take the Americans up a funnel-shaped valley, which became narrower as they advanced. On each side and the far side of the valley were steep ridges, occupied by German machine guns and infantry troops. As the Americans advanced up this shallow valley, the Germans opened up with intense machine gunfire from the left and right and the front. Soon, artillery poured in upon the beleaguered attackers, compelling the American attack to stall. The Americans were caught in a deadly crossfire. As York recollected:

The Germans… 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].

The Germans took a heavy toll on the Americans with the survivors seeking cover wherever they could find it. The German machine guns had to be silenced. Sergeant Bernard Early was ordered to take three squads of men (including York’s squad) to get behind the German entrenchments to take out the machine guns. They successfully worked their way behind the German positions and quickly overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing to counter-attack against the U.S. troops.

While the Americans were contending with the prisoners, the Germans on the hill above poured machine gunfire into the area, killing six Americans and wounding three others. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge, which turned their weapons on the U.S. soldiers. The loss of the nine American soldiers put Corporal York in charge. As his men remained under cover, and guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.

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. I don’t think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss… 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 Alvin York

One of York’s prisoners, German Lieutenant Paul Vollmer, emptied his pistol trying to kill York. Yet not one shot struck York. Seeing the mounting losses, he offered to surrender the unit on the hill. In the end, York and his men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines, silenced the German machine guns, and enabled the Americans to capture the Decauville Railroad. For his actions, York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. York’s life is relevant for us to contemplate as his physical courage on the battlefield reflected his moral courage in his spiritual life.

The Legacy of York’s Life

There are several lessons derived from the testimony of Alvin York that reach across the generations and speak to us today. The primary one is the impact that godly leaders made in Alvin’s life. Major Buxton (York’s Battalion Command) and Captain Danforth (Company Commander) had every reason to decline speaking with York –– foremost was the serious time constraints the unit was under. The 328th had only a few months to train raw recruits for combat. Despite this, they helped York overcome his doubts.

We talked along these lines for over an hour… We did not get angry or even raise our voice. We just examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which [sort of] favored war. I believed that the Lord was in that room. I seemed to somehow feel His presence there. Alvin York

These two biblically knowledgeable Christians gave hours of their precious time to help Sergeant York work through his doubts about the ability of a Christian to take up arms in defense of his nation. Their boldness for the faith, patience, and understanding were crucial in helping York fully commit to the tasks that lay ahead. Without the influence of Buxton and Danforth, York might have ended up not serving his country, and thereby not saving his unit from annihilation only months later and depriving us of an incredible Christian witness.

God used Sergeant Alvin York to save the lives of hundreds of Germans and Americans on that fateful day of October 8, 1918. In the decades since his heroic deed, the testimony of Sergeant York echoes across the ages to remind those who have inherited his legacy to live up to God’s calling. As Alvin York, we must endeavor to take our faith seriously, endeavoring to build our character and moral courage “muscles” by choosing to do the right thing every day. This will prepare us for the day of battle that lies ahead. Certainly, York was physically courageous on the battlefield, because he was morally courageous in his spiritual life.

Character is like a muscle the more it is exercised and used, the stronger it becomes. Every time we choose to do what is right, we build character and moral courage. York consistently chose to follow the Lord’s Way and was faithful in the little things. As a result, he was able to accomplish unimaginable feats later in the heat of battle.

God has endowed each of us with distinct talents and gifts to fulfill His purpose for our lives. In the case of Alvin York, his sharp eye as an expert rifleman made the difference during the fierce battle for the Decauville Railroad in October 1918. With such confidence, believers can move forward knowing that God has equipped us in the right place and the right time to fulfill His plan for our and others’ lives. York’s life is an example of this –– of how an obscure, albeit talented Tennesseean sharpshooter would rise as a witness for Jesus to the nation. What a difference a Christian can make.

A conversation between Sergeant York and his Division Commander, General Lindsey, in January 1919 when they toured the site where York captured 132 Germans three months earlier.

General Lindsey: “York, how did you do it?”

Alvin York: “Sir, it is not man power. A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do.” And the general bowed his head and put his hand on my shoulder and solemnly said.”

General Lindsay: “York, you are right.”

Alvin York: “There can be no doubt in the world of the fact of the divine power being in that. No other power under heaven could bring a man out of a place like that. Men were killed on both sides of me, and I was the biggest and the most exposed of all. Over thirty machine guns were maintaining rapid fire at me, point-blank from a range of about twenty-five yards. When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time.”


ASSOCIATION OF THE UNITED STATES ARMY

In the long and storied 243-year history of the U.S. Army, the exploits of Sgt. Alvin C. York on Oct. 8, 1918, in the Argonne Forest in World War I stand as one of the all-time greatest individual feats of an American soldier. In battle that day, then-Cpl. York killed 25 Germans, captured 132 and knocked out 35 machine guns.

After the war, York excelled as a contributing citizen to his community and nation. He worked to improve the lives of the children in his rural Tennessee community, especially in the area of education, and helped promote the homefront war effort during World War II. His life is a shining example of a Soldier for Life.

York came from humble beginnings. He was born on a farm near Pall Mall, Tenn., on Dec. 13, 1887. Raised in poverty as one of 11 children, he worked to help support his family, particularly after the death of his father. He was prone to fighting and drinking as a young man. However, after finding God in early 1915, York’s life changed dramatically. He became a solid citizen of his community.

Conscientious Objector Drafted

Meanwhile, World War I was raging in Europe, Asia and Africa. When the U.S. declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917, the Selective Service Act of 1917 instituted a draft. York was notified to register. Though he had asked for an exemption from the draft for his religious beliefs, identifying himself as a conscientious objector, his request was denied, and he was subsequently drafted. He reported to Camp Gordon, Ga., in November 1917 he began training while wrestling with his conscience as he pondered the Bible’s Old Testament admonition against killing.

York’s chain of command, specifically his battalion commander, Maj. George Buxton, and his company commander, Capt. E.C.B. Danforth Jr., won his respect and admiration for their professional and understanding methods of leadership. Granted a pass to go home to ponder his situation in March 1918, York decided to go with his unit to war.

In February 1918, York was assigned to the 82nd “All American” Division. He deployed to France in April 1918. Before moving to the front, York stayed true to his Christian beliefs, avoiding alcohol, cursing and fighting. His favorite companions were his Bible and his diary. His unit, G Company of the 328th Infantry Regiment, moved toward the front in July 1918. As part of the 82nd Division, they were destined to push forward in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive beginning in late September until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

The offensive was an all-out push by the Allies across the Western Front in Belgium and France to break the German defensive lines. The offensive would eventually place growing pressure on the German defenses in and around the Hindenburg Line to wear down and ultimately break the Imperial German Army. Nine U.S. divisions began the assault, followed by four divisions in reserve. The number of units engaged would grow as the fighting continued.

Fateful Battle

On the day of his historic action, York was part of a 17-man section moving just behind German lines looking for a gap for his company to advance in the Argonne Forest. The terrain was wooded, hilly and marshy, and the Germans had had four years to fortify it. The Argonne Forest fighting has been described as similar to the Hürtgen Forest fighting in World War II in Germany, a terrible place for a battle.

York’s company was tasked with moving over a hill and cutting the German resupply route, the Decauville Railroad, in the center of the forest. York’s company took heavy fire and suffered casualties. That led to the 17 men, under Sgt. Bernard Early, moving to find a gap in the German lines to flank and silence the machine guns holding up the advance.

Surprising some German medics as they moved deeper behind the enemy’s main line, the Americans followed the fleeing medics into a German command post, taking the command post by surprise and capturing the Germans there. While rounding up their prisoners, the Americans came under fire from nearby German machine gunners. The German fire killed several American soldiers and badly wounded Early, leaving York in command of the remaining troops.

York began shooting from the prone position with his bolt-action rifle, picking off German machine gunners as they raised their heads to spot targets. The prone firing position was familiar to York from his days of shooting matches in the Tennessee hills. At one point, six Germans tried to rush him. York killed them with his pistol, shooting from the farthest to the closest, a shooting trick he learned from his turkey hunting days back home.

The German major at the captured command post, seeing York’s shooting, offered to signal the remaining Germans to surrender. York agreed, and the surviving Americans took 80 to 90 German prisoners and had them carry the three wounded Americans as they began moving toward American lines. Going back through the German front line, York forced the major to signal German units around them to surrender, eventually winding up with 132 prisoners. In the fighting, York killed 25 Germans and silenced 35 machine guns.

Accolades for Bravery

York saw additional fighting up until Nov. 1, 1918, when his unit was pulled back to a rest camp. Word of the Nov. 11 armistice reached York’s unit while they were recovering at Aix-les-Bains. As was his habit, York went to church that day, wrote home and read a little. He was glad the fighting was over.

Word of York’s incredible feat spread through the ranks and he received various decorations for his exploits. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander in 1918, said when decorating York with the Croix de Guerre, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.” Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, presented York with the Medal of Honor in 1919.

Amazingly, York’s exploits were unknown to the American public until The Saturday Evening Post ran an article about him on April 26, 1919. The publicity turned York into a national hero. Though offered numerous financial opportunities upon his return through New York City to Tennessee, York declined them all. He continually stated, “This uniform of Uncle Sam’s ain’t for sale.” He sought a return home to Pall Mall, respite and marriage to his fiancée Gracie.

York then dedicated himself to bettering his community. He successfully petitioned the Tennessee Department of Highways and Public Works to build a road through the mountains around his home. This galvanized the surrounding counties to do the same, providing a much-improved road network in that area of the state.

Dream Realized

He then began a push to get a modern school in the area, a dream realized in 1929 when the York Agricultural Institute opened, named for him. York also pushed for military preparedness leading up to World War II, then tried to enlist upon the United States’ entry into that war. Denied enlistment due to poor health, he was commissioned as a Signal Corps major and traveled to help sell war bonds and inspire recruits at training bases.

York suffered from strokes, pneumonia and failing eyesight in his later years. He passed away in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept, 2, 1964.

York’s life story has been told in several books. In 1940, he agreed to the cinematic telling of his story by Warner Bros. in the Howard Hawks’ movie Sergeant York. The movie was the highest-grossing film in 1941, and Gary Cooper earned an Academy Award for Best Actor for portraying the title character. York is also recognized in the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s American Military History textbook used by Army ROTC departments to this day.

York exemplified Army values in his life. His personal courage in combat, his selfless service to his community in using his fame to better their lives, his loyalty to God and nation in his conduct during and after World War I, and his sense of duty to serve in one war and volunteer to serve in another stand as shining examples to all who serve.


Col. Douglas Mastriano, Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Alvin C. York (1887–1964)—devout Christian, conscientious objector, and reluctant hero of World War I—is one of America’s most famous and celebrated soldiers. Known to generations through Gary Cooper’s Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 1941 film Sergeant York, York is credited with the capture of 132 German soldiers on October 8, 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne region of France—a deed for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

At war’s end, the media glorified York’s bravery, but some members of the German military and a soldier from his own unit cast aspersions on his wartime heroics. Historians continue to debate whether York has received more recognition than he deserves. A fierce disagreement about the location of the battle in the Argonne forest has further complicated the soldier’s legacy.

In Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne, Douglas V. Mastriano sorts fact from myth in the first full-length biography of York in decades. He meticulously examines York’s youth in the hills of east Tennessee, his service in the Great War, and his return to a quiet civilian life dedicated to charity. By reviewing artifacts recovered from the battlefield using military terrain analysis, forensic study, and research in both German and American archives, Mastriano reconstructs the events of October 8 and corroborates the recorded accounts.


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