A war hero who lived his faith

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Joseph C. Goulden

Those of us of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion first be­came aware of the World War I hero via the 1941 movie, “Sergeant York,” star­ring Gary Cooper in the ti­tle role, for which he won an Academy Award. Even at age 7, sit­ting in a movie house in East Texas, I re­al­ized that Alvin York was a spe­cial hu­man, both as a war­rior who shot up a Ger­man ma­chine gun nest and cap­tured 132 pris­on­ers, and as a de­cent man with de­vout re­li­gious be­liefs.

In sub­se­quent years, York was nit­picked by skep­tics rang­ing from jeal­ous col­leagues-in-arms who had never liked the tac­i­turn Ten­nessee coun­try boy, to per­sons who scoffed at the au­dac­ity of a born-again Chris­tian cred­it­ing God for bring­ing him through fierce com­bat un­harmed.

Now, Col. Dou­glas V. Mas­tri­ano, a U.S. Army vet­eran of Afghanistan and Iraq, re­stores York to his right­ful place in mil­i­tary his­tory. His book is also a valu­able de­pic­tion of how a cre­ated-on-the-fly Army en­tered bat­tle dur­ing the war, a wel­come ad­di­tion to the flood of an­niver­sary books gush­ing from pub­lish­ers these days.

York was an un­likely hero. The third of 11 chil­dren born to a farm fam­ily in north­ern Ten­nessee, York learned marks­man­ship from his fa­ther, a renowned hunter, wield­ing both muz­zle-load­ing ri­fles and pis­tols with pin­point ac­cu­racy. He worked in the fields from age six, at­tend­ing school only spo­rad­i­cally.

Al­though the York fam­ily was deeply re­li­gious, the “blind tiger” drink­ing joints in the area lured the young man astray. In a ghost-writ­ten “au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” York would re­mem­ber, “I am a-telling you Sodom and Go­mor­rah might have been big­ger places but they weren’t any worse … . Knife-fights and shoot­ing were com­mon, gam­bling and drink­ing were com­moner, and lots of care­less girls jes used to sorter drift in.” How­ever, at the age of 27, coun­seled by his mother, and fear­ing a slide into perdi­tion, York re­turned to re­li­gion, a friend walk­ing him to the al­tar “to re-en­ter the fold of God.” He af­fil­i­ated with “a church where the con­gre­ga­tion took se­ri­ously what the Bi­ble said about Chris­tian liv­ing” — the Church of Christ in Chris­tian Union.

Thus, York faced a dilemma when he re­ceived a draft no­tice in April 1917, when the Amer­ica en­tered the war. He was torn be­tween con­flict­ing Bi­b­li­cal ad­mo­ni­tions: “Thou shalt not kill” and “Ren­der there­fore unto Cae­sar the things that are Cae­sar’s.” As he said, “I wanted to fol­low both. But I couldn’t.” He filed no less than four ap­peals for ex­emp­tion with the lo­cal draft board. All were re­jected, and York went to France with the 328th Reg­i­ment.

All the while, he still en­ter­tained doubts about the moral­ity of killing some­one, even in war. He found coun­sel­ing from a su­pe­rior of­fi­cer, also a de­vout Chris­tian, who tried to help him re­solve what he saw as an im­por­tant moral is­sue.

All doubts van­ished in Oc­to­ber 1918, when his unit en­gaged in a fierce fire­fight with a su­pe­rior Ger­man force on the edge on the Ar­gonne For­rest. Cpl. Mur­ray Sav­age, York’s clos­est friend, was caught by a ma­chine burst that lit­er­ally “shot him to pieces … . His body and clothes were spread across the meadow in a heap of bloody shreds.” Any mis­giv­ings York had about fight­ing van­ished. Along with seven other sur­vivors, he set out to de­stroy the of­fend­ing ma­chine gun nest.

York found a po­si­tion that gave him a clear line of fire. With the deadly pre­ci­sion he learned as a boy, he be­gan pick­ing off Ger­mans — 19 of whom fell dead. York re­peat­edly yelled that they should sur­ren­der lest he kill more.

When they re­fused, and charged, York took out his pis­tol and “picked off the ad­vanc­ing foes from back to front. The logic be­hind this was that if the lead Ger­mans fell, the trail­ing Ger­mans would seek cover and be all the more dif­fi­cult to kill” — some­thing York learned from hunt­ing tur­keys. The Ger­mans gave up, and York marched 132 pris­on­ers off the bat­tle­field. His com­mand­ing gen­eral maveled, “Well, York, I hear you have cap­tured the whole (ex­ple­tive) Ger­man army!”

Fame quickly fol­lowed. Other soldiers swore af­fi­davits af­firm­ing York’s brav­ery, and he was awarded the Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross, soon up­graded to the Medal of Honor. York was con­vinced that divine in­ter­ven­tion saved his life: “I am a wit­ness to the fact that God did help me out of that hard bat­tle, for the bushes were shot off all around me and I never got a scratch.”

Back in the United States, movie and en­dorse­ment of­fers flooded York, to­tal­ing some $250,000 (at least $3,320,00 in to­day’s dol­lars). He re­jected them, say­ing “My life is not for sale, and I don’t al­low Un­cle Sam’s uni­form for sale.”

York re­turned to Ten­nessee, mar­ried, and de­voted the rest of his life to rais­ing money to sup­port a church school and other re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties. His renown, of course, helped, but he kept lit­tle money for him­self (dy­ing broke). He de­cided to break his si­lence on the eve of World War II, hop­ing that a movie on his own ac­tions would jar Amer­ica out of iso­la­tion­ist lethargy. It did.

Col. Mas­tri­ano thor­oughly routs York’s de­trac­tors, doc­u­ment­ing that he never claimed full credit for win­ning the en­counter, and in­deed praised the sup­port of com­rades. To re­solve a dis­pute over the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the fight, Col. Mas­tri­ano looked be­yond flawed U. S. Army maps and found more ac­cu­rate ren­di­tions in Ger­man mil­i­tary ar­chives. He found ar­ti­facts en­abling him to re­con­struct the bat­tle site. This is splen­did mil­i­tary his­tory that tells the story of a splen­did hero. Joseph C. Goulden is the au­thor of 18 non­fic­tion books.

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