World War I – Part 15 – The Most Decorated American Soldier of WWI

World War I – Part 15 – France   October 8, 1918

How Sgt. Alvin York became the most decorated American soldier of World War I

My comments: This story describes how Sgt. Alvin York became the most decorated American soldier of World War I on Oct 8, 1918.  Sgt. York’s story is not part of my grandfather’s World War I Log Book.  However, my grandfather was in the Argonne offensive on October 8, 1918.  When I was researching the Argonne offensive for these Log Book posts, I learned about Sgt. York’s amazing story.  I want to share it with you.

Story of Sgt. Alvin York:

(All quotes are from the 1922 book Sergeant York and His People by Sam K. Cowan.)

Alvin York was raised in a family – and a community – of farmers and hunters in the mountains of Tennessee near the border of Kentucky.

Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River in 2009.  This is where Alvin York grew up and where he returned after his heroics in World War I.
(photo by Brian Stansberry 2009)

Weekly Shooting Contests During Alvin York’s Childhood

Every Saturday locals gathered for shooting contests.  Alvin York and his father William were regulars.  “Often there were fifty or more men, and they came bringing their long rifles….”  (page 65) There were turkey shoots of 40 yards and 150 yards, plus target shoots to win a sheep or a quarter of a beef.

Here is author Sam Cowan’s description of the forty-yard turkey shoot, and how Alvin York’s years becoming a marksman there contributed to U.S. forces pushing through the German lines in the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918.

“The second turkey-shoot was held at the forty-yard range.  But the bird was now tethered behind a log, so that only his head and red wattles could appear.  Here, too, the turkey was given freedom of motion and granted self-determination as to how he should turn his head in wonder at the assemblage of men before him; or, if he should elect, he could disappear entirely behind the log if he found something that interested him upon the ground nearby, and the marksman must wait for the untimed appearance of the bobbing head.  It took prompt action and a quick bead to score a hit.”

“And it was years afterward, after Alvin York had become the most expert rifle-shot that those mountains had ever held, that he sat in the brush on the slope of a hill in the Forest of Argonne and watched for German helmets and German heads to bob above their pits and around trees – just forty yards away.” (page 66)

Alvin York was Tough, Quiet and Religious

Other than several years of teenage rebellion, Alvin York was very religious all of his life.  In this he followed his mother, who was religious, kind and strong.

At the time he entered the Army, York was 6′ tall and very muscular from years of working in the fields and swinging a sledge hammer in his father’s blacksmith shop.  He was quiet, with very little formal schooling but plenty of back-country “smarts.”  “But he was wise enough to know there were many things he did not know.  He was brave enough to frankly admit them.”

 

Sgt. Alvin York, World War I

Alvin York’s military photo (1919) and Registration Card (1917) from the book Sergeant York and His People

Military Registration for World War I

The military registration card he filled out included this question: “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?”

Alvin York wrote in answer: “Yes, Don’t want to Fight.”  Despite this, he went to Army training camp when the U.S. entered World War I.

“The rugged manhood within him had made him refuse to ask exemption from service and danger on the ground that the doctrine of his church opposed war.  But his conscience was troubled that he was deliberately on the mission to kill his fellow man.” (page 103)  You will see how this was expressed during the battle on October 8th.

He went to France June 27, 1918 as part of the Army’s 82nd Division.  His first battle was in the St. Mihiel Salient, where my grandfather’s Engineering platoon was repairing roads and supporting the troops.  Then the 82nd was transferred to the massive Argonne offensive, where my grandfather was also close to the front lines.

October 8, 1918 — Argonne Forest offensive

On the morning of October 8, the 82nd Division attacked Hill 223, where the Germans were entrenched, advancing through a narrow valley.  German machine guns set on surrounding hilltops were mowing down the American troops.

A non-commissioned officer and sixteen men, including Alvin York, were asked to see if they could outflank the machine gun nests.  They came upon an abandoned trench that took them behind the German lines.  When they came out of the trench, they surprised a group of 20 German officers and soldiers, including a Major, who surrendered to the Americans.

Suddenly German machine guns on a ridge 30 – 40 yards away started firing at the group, killing six of the Americans and wounding three.  The German prisoners dove to the ground to avoid being killed and the rest of the Americans also hit the ground.

York was lying in the mud between two bushes, where he had a view of the machine gunners at the top of the hill.  Each time one of the German machine gunners would raise his head to sight the gun and shoot, York fired his rifle, the bullet went crashing into the gunner’s head, and he was dead.

Frank E. Schoonover’s 1919 painting of Sgt. Alvin York is on display at the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum. Image courtesy 82nd Abn. Div. War Memorial Museum.

As York shot one German soldier after another, he prayed to God to spare him and to have mercy on those he was killing.  Between shots, when it got quiet, “York would call to them: ‘Well!  Come on Down!’  He was praying for their surrender, so that he might stop killing them.”  (page 15)

Seeing that the machine gunners were being picked off one by one, a German Lieutenant leading five soldiers snuck up on York.  They came charging at him with fixed bayonets from about 20 yards away.  York dropped his rifle and pulled out his automatic pistol.  He had the presence of mind to shoot the last man first, so his comrades in front would not see him fall and stop to shoot, instead of continuing to run at York.  They kept coming, and he shot each one from back to front, the last being the Lieutenant about 10 yards away from him.

At this point, the German Major had seen so many of his men killed by York that he crawled over and offered to order the surrender of the remaining machine gunners on the ridge above them.  York replied, “Do it!,” and 90 or so Germans came down the hill with their hands in the air.

There were now over 100 prisoners.  Somehow York and his fellow American soldiers had to get the prisoners – and themselves – through the German lines and back to the Americans.

Hill 223 where Sgt. Alvin York captured 132 German prisoners

York lined up the German prisoners two by two, with the Major at the front and York right behind him.  In order to get back through the German lines, York walked the group right up to several more German machine gun nests, where the Major – York’s pistol in his back – told them to surrender.

When the group finally got to the valley and reached the American line, an American Lieutenant was found who counted 132 German prisoners, including the Major and two other officers.

Later, American troops reached the top of the hill where York had been fighting.  They found 25 Germans he had killed and 35 machine guns silenced because their gunners where either dead or taken as prisoners.

About this day, York wrote in his diary:

“So 17 of us boys went around on the left flank to see if we couldn’t put those guns out of action.”
“By this time the Germans from on the hill was shooting at me.  Well I was giving them the best I had.”
“The Germans had got their machine guns turned around.”
“They killed 6 and wounded 3.  That just left 8 and we got into it right.  So we had a hard battle for a little while.”

He was very humble in his description of the battle.  In fact, it wasn’t “we” who had “a hard battle for a little while.” It was only Sgt. York.  Of the 8 American soldiers left, York was the only one firing at the German machine gun positions.  The other 7 men were lying in the mud among the German prisoners, both to hold the prisoners and to avoid being killed by the machine guns.

Official Report of Sgt. York’s Accomplishments

I will close this story with the following:

  • The official Eighty-Second Division report of Sgt. York’s exploits
  • The praise of General John Pershing
  • The soaring statement of Supreme Allied Commander General Marshal Foch
  • Finally, the humble statement of Alvin York.

The report which the officers of the Eighty-Second Division made to General Headquarters contained these statements:

‘The part which Corporal York individually played in this attack (the capture of the Decauville Railroad) is difficult to estimate.  Practically unassisted, he captured 132 Germans (three of whom were officers), took about 35 machine guns and killed no less than 25 of the enemy, later found by others on the scene of York’s extraordinary exploit.

‘The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from Headquarters of this Division and is entirely substantiated.

‘The success of this assault had a far-reaching effect in relieving the enemy pressure against American forces in the heart of the Argonne Forest.'” (page 110)

“General John J. Pershing in pinning the Congressional Medal of Honor upon him – the highest award for valor the United States Government bestows – called York the greatest civilian soldier of the war.” (page 22)

“In decorating Sergeant York with the Croix de Guerre with Palm, Marshal Foch [French General and Supreme Allied Commander as of March 26, 1918] said to him:

‘What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all of the armies of Europe.'” (page 111)

In contrast to the grand statements and plaudits from American and French Generals, Sgt. York had a very different description of his tactics in his back-country mountain slang.

“The officers recall his quaint and memorable answer to the inquiry on the tactics he used to defend himself against the Boche [Germans] who were in the gun-pits, shooting at him from behind trees and crawling for him through the brush.  His method was simple and effective.

‘When I seed a German, I jes’ tetched him off.'” (page 111, bold emphasis added to the quotes above)

 

*****

Note: This description of Sgt. Alvin York’s life and heroic accomplishments on October 8, 1919 is taken from the book Sergeant York and His People by Sam Cowan, published in 1922.  Sam Cowan actually went to Pall Mall, Tennessee to spend time with Sgt. York, his family and friends.  He also quoted from Sgt. York’s diary.

Next post will be — From my grandfather’s Log Book: First shower in a month.

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Peter Finkle bio: Husband, Father, Writer | Herbal Health Researcher | Co-Founder: Vets Vites dietary supplements

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