The Most Decorated US soldier from WW1: Sergeant York - History Key

The Most Decorated US soldier from WW1: Sergeant York

Most often, the stories related to heroes seem to come from the WW2 timeframe. Previously, we presented the story of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, a WW1 fighter ace better known as the “Red Baron”. So this time our attention goes to another camp. Like many stories, this one also starts with a name: Alvin York.

Early life

Born in Tennessee on December 13, 1887, Alvin Cullum York was raised in a farmer family, together with his ten brothers and sisters. The situation around the numerous family was not easy. The children from the York family had a poor education, considering that they had to help each other in any possible way, including hunting, fishing or by working as laborers. After the death of their father, the York brothers had to rely on Alvin, who became a father figure for his siblings, managing to provide food on the table by working in construction or as a logger.

Alvin York in 1941
Alvin York in 1941 © Image Source: nndb.com

Even if Alvin was a devoted believer, frequently going to the church, he had a difficult character. He was a heavy drinker and the first in line for a fist fight. At the beginning of the First World War, Alvin York chose to be a conscientious objector, avoiding any kind of violent activity. After he was persuaded that his religion was not against the military service, Alvin enrolled in the 82nd Division, becoming an infantry private. In 1918, he was sent to France, where in short time he was promoted, corporal. During his time on the French battlefields, York managed to remain in history for his actions.  

Ascendancy in the army

On October 8, around Meuse-Argonne, Corporal York was part of a 17 soldiers group having the mission to infiltrate the German positions and take out a machine gun nest, which caused great losses to the U.S. troops. The American commando team had luck, managing to capture a large number of German soldiers, but the situation was about to change.

German machine gun nest - WW1
German machine gun nest – WW1 © Image Source: ddoughty.com

While grouping a large number of German prisoners, the American patrol came under the enemy fire. They were pinned down by fire coming from small arms, which were trying to break the prisoner’s encirclement and made possible their escape.

Six American soldiers died during the German counterattack, and York became in charge of the remaining soldiers, considering that he was carrying the highest rank among the ones still capable to fight. While his men were guarding the prisoners, York has thrown himself in an incredible assault, one that will guarantee him the Medal of Honor.

Corporal York launched a one-man attack on the German positions located on the Hill 223, taking out several enemy soldiers with his rifle. In the middle of the battle and when his rifle was out of ammunition, York was attacked by six German soldiers armed with bayonets, so he turned to his side pistol, managing to kill them all. There was also a German officer who was in the command of the machine gun position, who had to surrender to York because he emptied his pistol in the unsuccessful attempt to hit him.

Alvin Cullum York with his decorations
Alvin Cullum York with his decorations © Image Source: Wikipedia

After the fight, York’s team returned to the United States command post with more than 130 German prisoners. For his bravery in combat, York was immediately promoted to sergeant, also receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. Later on, after a more detailed investigation related to York’s actions during the battle, made him a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Sergeant York’s story gained wrong proportions. At some point, he was credited with 35 destroyed machine guns and 132 prisoners, everything achieved only by him. York never claimed that he acted alone in the battle, and he never stated any kind of pride for his actions. Only other two soldiers from York’s squad were acknowledged for their participation in the event, Sergeant Early, and Corporal Cutting, who received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1927.

“The fear of God makes a hero; the fear of man makes a coward” (Alvin C. York)

The national hero

His actions transformed him into a national hero, becoming even the subject of the 1941 movie ”Sergeant York’’, which was that year’s highest-grossing film. Gary Cooper, who interpreted York’s role, won the Academy Award for best actor.

Gary Cooper as Sergeant York
Gary Cooper as Sergeant York © Image Source: britannica.com

After the war, Sergeant York returned to Tennessee where he founded a charitable foundation having the intention to improve educational opportunities for the children living in the rural Tennessee. During the ’30s and the ’40s, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and supervised the construction of the Byrd Lake reservoir at Cumberland Mountain State Park; later on, he served for several years as park superintendent.

He lived in a farm located in Nashville, together with his new wife and a growing family. Sergeant York died on September 2nd, 1964, in Tennessee, Nashville. He is buried at Wolf River Cemetery in his hometown of Pall Mall.

(Article was written using references from Wikipedia.org, WorldWar1.com)

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