Magnificent Men We Must Not Forget: Sergeant Alvin C. York
This series of brief biographies seeks to capture the essence of history’s greatest men; men not known to all, but whom can be to all an inspiration, for they are magnificent.
Alvin Cullum York, or simply Sergeant York, as he was widely known for many years, was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I, and arguably America’s most celebrated warrior of the era. (Sorry, Eddie Rickenbacker… but you’re last name is kind of funny anyway.) He was a hero of his era; the subject of countless newspaper stories, magazine articles, and film reels, and he gave frequent speeches on causes ranging from war to his true passion, education for young people from rural areas of his native Tennessee.
Why was this man such a celebrity in the early 20th Century? Because the word “badass” calls things “Sgt. York” when it wants to describe them.
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First, a bit of history: Alvin York was the third of eleven children born to impoverished parents living in a log cabin. Yes, really… a log cabin. It was in Pall Mall, Tennessee on December 13th, 1887, to be precise. York’s father worked intermittently as a blacksmith. The York children attended school for nine months before they began farming, hunting, and working to help support the family. Alvin York developed a sharpshooter’s eye bagging small game. (Note that for later.)
As a young man, York worked as a logger, he worked on railroads, and he frequently got blackout drunk and started bar fights. At north of six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, it was best to be side-by-side with him as opposed to squared off across the barroom floor. This would also prove true if you were in the German Army.
York experienced a religious revival in 1914 that led him to cease drinking and fighting and briefly turned him to pacifism. With America’s eventual entry in WWI, York dutifully enlisted and, before long, found himself a United States Army Private. He disavowed his pacifism after a period of soul-searching, and… the hell with it, let’s get to the heart of the matter!
On October 8th, 1918, York’s company was taking part in the greater Meuse-Argonne Offensive, an action meant to breach the strongest line of resistance still extant on the Western Front. Mid way into the day’s action, a battery of machine guns cut down dozens of soldiers near York and pinned scores more, preventing the unit from advancing as planned. York, along with four other noncommissioned officers and about a dozen privates, set off in hopes of silencing the guns. Several of those brave soldiers died within minutes.
Thus it was that York found himself out in front and left with just seven Americans supporting him. The 29-year-old corporal charged ahead through raking machine gun fire, picking off German soldiers with his Model 1917 Enfield rifle and shouting for the Germans to surrender (which makes sense, as they had machine guns against his bolt-action rifle, but he had the fact that he was Alvin C. York). Upon entering a trench near the machine gun batteries, York was charged by no fewer than six Germans with fixed bayonets. His rifle being empty, York drew his sidearm, a Colt .45, and shot them all. (Note that the 1911 Colt holds a maximum of eight rounds, and that’s if you already chambered a bullet then reloaded the magazine.)
When the bloodbath was over, York and his compatriots had killed some 25 Germans (York accounting for at least nine himself), captured more than 130 enemy soldiers, and silenced several dozen machine guns. The American offensive resumed largely due to the heroism of York and his fellow warriors.
Alvin York was promoted to sergeant at once, and given the Distinguished Service Cross; upon later review, this award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. (Creation of the Medal Holy Shit was likely considered as well.) In all, he received more than 50 awards and commendations from countries all over the world.
When Sgt. York got home, he proved himself the ultimate badass by following the spirit of Washington (or Cincinnatus, for the hard core history folks among you) by turning his energies not to matters martial but rather by using his fame to promote education among the rural poor of Tennessee. He turned down most offers of cash and gifts, though he did allow his story to be made into a motion picture in the early 1940s. He granted occasional interviews about his war experiences, but he never cast them as exploits. Usually, York focused on raising funds and support for education and for rural infrastructure.
At the outset of World War II, York attempted to re-enlist, but given that he was in his mid-50s, overweight, and borderline arthritic, his resumption of a combat role was denied. He was however made an honorary Colonel in the Signal Corp.
Alvin York died in 1964 and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He has since slid into relative obscurity, and that is why you must spread word of this mighty man. (But don’t say anything that might piss him off when you do it: even though he passed away more than half a century ago, Sergeant York could still beat the hell out of you if he wanted to.)