World War Heroes – Sergeant Alvin C. York

Danielle Burton                              

Whilst the First World War started in July 1914, the Americans didn’t join in on the Allied side until April 1917. Still, American soldiers acted as bravely as any soldier from another country. None more so than Alvin C. York, who has been called the greatest American civilian solider of that conflict. He is understandably little known to a UK audience, but that doesn’t take away from the bravery he had, or the awards he was given for it. In fact, he was actually the most decorated American of the First World War, receiving a total of 44 decorations from the Allied forces, including the Congressional Medal of Honour, Distinguished Service Cross, and the Croix de Guerre.[1]

Photograph taken of Alvin C. York by Harris & Ewing (1919) and held by the Library of Congress

Alvin was born on 13th of December 1887 in a little cabin in Pall Mall in Tennessee, which had been owned by his family for generations. He was one of eleven children in total. His family were poor, but they survived on a lifestyle of hunting and farming, meaning that Alvin was taught how to use a gun from a young age.[2] Despite this, he was able to get work as a blacksmith.[3] His reputation as a youth wasn’t good. Alvin was seen as a wild as he was often swearing, drinking, fighting and gambling but in 1915, that changed when he fell in love with a local woman called Gracie Williams. When Alvin asked her to court him, she refused unless he changed his behaviour. With this in mind, he started to attend a local church, soon becoming a regular and eventually converting.[4] With the Pastor he befriended there, Alvin set up a new church, and so Gracie became Alvin’s girlfriend.

Conscientious Objector Claim of Appeal for Alvin Cullum York, 597110, National Archives

When sign up papers arrived he appealed on the grounds of his religious convictions against killing. This was not unusual as religion could be an appropriate reason for people to be conscientious objectors. Some also only agreed to serve in medical corps, but Alvin wished not to serve at all. Despite the case going to an appeal, his wishes were denied as the church he attended was not seen as well recognised.[5] Instead, he was sent to training. Whilst there, he was still unsure whether he wished to go to war. Luckily, two of his superior officers understood the issue he faced and allowed him two weeks leave to make a decision: to be sent to war, or be given permission not to fight.[6]

His role in the war could have ended there and I think most people would have understood why with the reasons Alvin had put forward. However, after the two weeks of soul searching were over, he decided to go, but said he would only kill an enemy if it was a life or death situation. That day would come on the 8th of October 1918, just days before the signing of the armistice. York’s platoon and others were part of a final push toward German lines in the Argonne Forest of North East France. They were ordered to capture German machine guns on a hill opposite their position. There was no denying the mission was a deadly one.

Only seventeen men made it to an unused trench and eventually behind the German guns and into the headquarters of the gun regiment they were tasked with capturing.[7]  A violent battle ensued and six were killed and three wounded, including a Sergeant, leaving Alvin as the commanding officer. It is said that Alvin singlehandedly shot twenty five gunners that day.[8] As Alvin was known for his shooting skills, this is quite possible as it would have been at short range. With the obviousness of the bleak situation the German gun regiment now found themselves, the German officer surrendered. In total one hundred and thirty two Germans were captured. There has been some doubt cast on York’s actions. Two other American officers contested the events of that day. William Cutting, the Sergeant who was injured, said the German officer actually surrendered to him, not York.[9] Whatever the truth may be, York’s bravery that day cannot be denied. He definitely deserved the many awards he was given after the end of the war.

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 Musuem

When he was finally able to return to America, he was given a hero’s welcome, despite his dislike of fame. The most heart-warming thing was that he was finally able to marry his sweetheart, Gracie. Five thousand people from around the country turned up for the ceremony. To make sure no one was disappointed after their long journeys, the ceremony was performed on a mountainside that Alvin and Gracie used to walk on before he went to war.[10]

Alvin was also offered $250,000 to do promotion work but politely turned it down.[11] The only money he received was to buy a farm in his hometown of Pall Mall, anything else he was given went towards establishing schools in other poor communities in the locality.[12] His most enduring legacy was an agricultural institute that was set up in 1929 to teach others in rural communities trades for future employment, as well as paying for roads and buses to get students there.[13] As Alvin was the founder, the institute soon took on his name as well. Sadly with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the school’s funding was cut. To ensure its future, Alvin went on the lecture circuit to tell his story, with all profits going to fund the institute.[14] This was not the only time he used his story to raise money for the institute. In 1940, he was approached by Warner Brothers, who wished to turn his story into a film. Alvin agreed as long as he could be an advisor and the majority of any money he was given for it would go towards the institute.

Theatrical release poster for the 1941 film Sergeant York, Wikimedia Commons

Gary Cooper was cast as Alvin and the film soon became a huge success upon its release in September 1941. With discussions of whether America should join the Allies in fighting World War Two, the film played upon patriotic war themes. It became the highest grossing film of that year, which also coincided with Pearl Harbour, which happened whilst the film was showing in cinemas. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, with Gary Cooper winning Best Actor for his performance in the film.[15] Alvin himself was paid $150,000 for the film and most of this went to his institute.[16]

Sadly the last few years of Alvin’s life were marred by a tax dispute, which lasted until 1961. The American tax system argued that he owned them $172,000 in tax, which was eventually reduced to $25,000.[17] It was only reduced by a campaign spearheaded by the Speaker of Congress. This campaign included a fund to pay this supposed backlog in tax and any extra money that was earned was given to Alvin himself as a $300 a month pension in recognition for his services to the nation.[18]

Alvin died at the age of 76 in September 1964 at the Veterans Hospital in Nashville. His hometown of Pall Mall wished to commemorate his life achievements and created a historic area to be preserved for posterity. These buildings include his church, house and Gracie’s house, just to name a few.[19] Besides the film made to celebrate his achievements, I’m not sure how well his bravery has been remembered outside of his hometown. I hope that it has been as his bravery and the strength to stand by his morals are utterly commendable.

To read more posts by Danielle head to – https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/

Twitter – @PrincessBurton


[1] Hoobler, J. A., ‘Sergeant York Historic Area’, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 38.1 (1979), p. 5.

[2] Clarke, J., ‘The Story Of Sgt. York, The Man Who Killed Or Captured More Than 100 Germans In A Single WWI Battle’, Task & Purpose, 8 Oct 2018, https://taskandpurpose.com/unsung-heroes/sgt-york-heroics-wwi/

[3] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Alvin York”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Aug 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alvin-Cullum-York

[4] Hoobler, J. A., ‘Sergeant York Historic Area’, p. 3.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, p. 5.

[8] Ibid

[9] Clarke, J., ‘The Story Of Sgt. York, The Man Who Killed Or Captured More Than 100 Germans In A Single WWI Battle’, https://taskandpurpose.com/unsung-heroes/sgt-york-heroics-wwi/

[10] Hoobler, J. A., ‘Sergeant York Historic Area’, p. 6.

[11] Ibid, p. 5.

[12] Ibid, p. 6.

[13] Ibid, p. 6.

[14] Ibid, p. 6.

[15] Srinivasan, S., ‘Revisiting Sergeant York: Why the 1941 Gary Cooper-starrer, while flawed, exemplifies Golden Era Hollywood’, First Post, 28 Sep 2019, https://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/revisiting-sergeant-york-why-the-1941-gary-cooper-starrer-while-flawed-exemplifies-golden-era-hollywood-7409461.html

[16] Hoobler, J. A., ‘Sergeant York Historic Area’, p. 6.

[17] Ibid, p. 7.

[18] Ibid, p. 7.

[19] Ibid, p. 7.

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