A war hero who lived his faith
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.