Monday, November 5, 2012

America's Story (part 10) - Sergeant York

Sergeant Alvin Cullum York
Remember World War One?  

My grandfather had fought in that war and it seemed like a century ago ... and it was.

In two years will be the centennial of the start of the First World War (1914 - 1918).  At that time, it was called  the Great War, the World War,  the War to End all Wars.  Only after the start of World War Two was it called World War One. (First World War.com - A Multimedia History of World War One)

We see a legacy of the Great War this coming Monday.  Signing the Armistice to cease the hostilities of this war at 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - November 11, 1918 - has evolved to the national holiday we recognize as
Veterans Day.
 (History of Veterans Day - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs)  

And on such a holiday, we are most thankful for all the veterans, who have put themselves in harm's way to defend us and keep us safe.  Where are all the veterans of the Great War, in which this holiday first honored?

Rest in Peace, World War One veterans

In 2011, the world bid farewell to the last veterans of that war who had fought on the front lines - Frank Buckles of the US passed away at 110 in February (Last living U.S. World War I veteran dies - CNN.com) and Claude Choules of Australia also passed away at 110 in May (Claude Choules the last-known WW1 frontline veteran laid to rest | Mail Online.)   And this year, 2012, in February, the last known veteran, Florence Green, who had served Great Britain's RAF as a waitress, passed away at 110.  (Florence Green, Last World War I Veteran, Dies at 110 - NYTimes.com)

As the Good Book says ....

One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4
King James Version

But the heroes still live on in our hearts and in America's story.  One of them is a reluctant hero - Alvin  Cullum York
.(The Legends and Traditions of the Great War: Sergeant Alvin York)

As the link above indicates, many remember Alvin York as the laconic reluctant hero from the 1941 movie, Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper.    And Sergeant York did not seek the lime light as he had condemned war and even questioned America's involvement in World War One.  But later he saw war as a necessary evil under some circumstances.

Sergeant York agreed to have the movie made seeing Hitler as the personification of evil.  And a film of his life would to help to combat the isolationist stance of the America First Committee, endorsed by Charles Lindbergh.  (But the committee as well as America's isolationist stance dissolved after the attack on Pearl Harbor.)  (Charles Lindbergh's Noninterventionist Efforts & America First Committee

Alvin York - Humble Log Cabin Beginnings

Alvin York was born in a log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee in 1887.  He had little formal education, but worked on the family farm and hunted to help feed the family.  Hence, he had developed his skills as a marksman.  When his father passed away in 1911, Alvin helped his mother raise his younger brother and sisters.

Alvin York - Sinner

As he came of age, Alvin York had earned a reputation as a deadly accurate shot as well as a hell-raiser.  He drank, gambled, fought, had been arrested for bad behavior, and considered a nuisance and someone that "would not amount to anything."

Alvin York - Coming to Jesus

As shown in the clip below, the movie depicts Alvin York literally coming to Jesus after a lightening strike as he was seeking revenge on his rival for cheating him.  Most likely this story was an embellishment, but it makes for a good yarn - especially in Hollywood.  (Sergeant Alvin York - Mental Floss



But in 1915, Alvin York embraced the Church of Christ in Christian Union,  a fundamental sect that forbade many things including drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war.  His conversion may have been prompted by the senseless death of a close friend in a bar fight, whereas Alvin York attended an H. H. Russell revival meeting and came to Jesus, turning from his wicked ways.  (reference:  The 100 Greatest Heroes)  

Alvin York - Conscientious Objector

After the Great War broke out and America entered into the fray in 1917, American men were being drafted.  As part of his religion, Alvin York did not believe in killing and violence, which is what war is all about - killing people and breaking things.  Turned down by the draft board as a "conscientious objector" since his church was not recognized as a legitimate sect, Alvin York, nearly 30 years old at the time, appealed the decision, but reluctantly went to Camp Gordon for basic training anyway.

The Tennessee native proved himself in training with his excellent marksmen skills.  And his superiors were intrigued by this man who wrote on his draft card - "Dont [sic] want to fight."  The scene below captures some of this struggle and Alvin York's final decision "to render unto Caesar "  hence go to war -  



Private Alvin York finally came to the conclusion that there were times when war was moral and ordained by God.  He believed that God would keep him safe as he committed himself to become a good soldier.  When his regiment of the  82nd Infantry Division was deployed to France, he kept a diary of his adventures.   His moment of destiny came on October 8, 1918 in Argonne Forest during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France.

Alvin York - War Hero

Then Corporal Alvin C. York with 16 other soldiers were dispatched to take command of the Decauville railroad. Misreading their map (written in French not English), they mistakenly found themselves behind enemy lines. The Americans engaged the enemy resulting in the unexpected surrender of a superior German force. 

Once the Germans realized that the Americans only numbered 17 men, the German machine gunners on the hill opened fire on them killing nine Americans and wounding the Sergeant, who turned over command to two of his corporals.  The corporals then ordered Alvin York to silence the machine gun, which he did and - using his turkey hunting skills - captured  132 prisoners in the process.

This amazing scene is played out in the clip below 



This feat led to Alvin York being designated the “greatest soldier in history” and secure his place in the history books.

Corporal York was promoted to Sergeant York.  He continued to fight in France until the Armistice was signed on November 11th. Sergeant York was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, the Badge of Nobility, and the French Croix de Guerre, among  others.

Alvin York - an inspiration 100 years later

Sergeant York has been an inspiration as a reluctant American hero, even likened to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Abraham Lincoln for his roots in the quasi-frontier and a figure rising on the national scene.   Much more could be said of his humility, his desire to help educate those in his native Tennessee, and willingness to do what he could to help during World War Two.  

And below is a tribute to him after he passed away in 1964,



More information about his remarkable life and legacy can be explored here:  Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation

And Sergeant Alvin York for his convictions and bravery during the trial of war are part of the America's story 
which is to be continued ...

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Previous posts on  World War One:

Veteran's Day 2011 - final homecoming of the WWI vets (2011)

Veterans Day - World War One Soldiers Remembered (2009)

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Other posts in this series:

America's Story (part 1) - The Speech that redefined us, November 19, 1863 (2011)

America's Story (part 2) - Savages! (2011)

America's Story (part 3) - Over There - 1917, 1941 (2011)

America's Story (part 4) - Christmas 1944, when we said NUTS to the enemy (2011)

America's Story (part 5) - Amazing Grace (2012)

America's Story (part 6) - GI Joe Tuskegee Airmen (2012)

America's Story (part 7) - When Reagan was shot (2012)

America's Story (part 8) - Memorial Day, Gettysburg, and Amos Humiston (2012)


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Photo from:  Wikipedia - Alvin York

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