Sergeant Alvin C. York American World War I Hero Recipient of the nation’s highest military award — the Medal of Honor
by Colonel Douglas Mastriano
The Argonne Forest, France, October 8, 1918. After his platoon suffered heavy casualties, Alvin York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four German officers and 128 men and several guns.
The Making of a Man of Character
Alvin York was born into a poor family in Tennessee on December 13, 1887. When Alvin’s father died, York said:
I got in bad company and…got to drinking and gambling…I used to drink a lot of moonshine and had a lot of fist fights.
On January 1, 1915, Alvin attended a revival meeting conducted by Reverend H.H. Russell. During the sermon, York felt as if lightning hit his soul and was moved to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. From this point on his life was forever changed and he stopped “smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing and brawling.”
York took this commitment seriously, grew in his faith, taught Sunday school, led the choir and eventually became an elder in his church. York’s old friends tried to persuade him to go drinking, but he refused. It took moral courage for York to remain committed to the Lord, but with the strength of the Holy Spirit and personal resolve, York prevailed. This sharpened York’s character and moral courage, directly contributing to his heroic deeds in the midst of battle only two years later.
Thou Shall Not Kill
York immersed himself in the “trinity of Christian growth”: prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. As Alvin grew in his faith, World War I raged across Europe with the U.S. entering the fray in 1917. Alvin’s world turned upside down in June 1917 when he received a draft notice. When he read “Thou shall not kill” in the Bible, he took it literally. However, he also believed that God ordained governments as instruments to be obeyed. Alvin York summed up this dilemma when he said:
I wanted to follow both [the Bible and the U.S.]. But I couldn’t. I wanted to do what was right…If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to the reading of my Bible, I [wasn’t] a good Christian.
York applied for exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector, but his request was denied. This put York into doubt and confusion. He trusted God to get him out of what he perceived as doing something contrary to the Bible. As he said:
I was [sort of messed] up inside [worse than] ever. I thought that the Word of God would prevail against the laws of men….
York did not know what was ahead, but reported for duty to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. York’s Company Commander, Captain Danforth, and Battalion Commander, Major Buxton, were both committed Christians. Buxton and Danforth knew their Bible and dedicated hours of their time to contend with York’s doubts. They literally walked through the Bible together to debate the issue. For every verse the commanders used to support their position on warfare, York countered. Finally, Danforth read Ezekiel 33:6 ––
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.
With this, York said, “All right, I’m satisfied” and resolved to serve as a soldier. Armed with this assurance, he sought to excel in all that was entrusted to him.
Argonne Forest, France
October 8, 1918 –– Argonne Forest, France. It was another wet and foggy morning along the edge of the rugged Argonne Forest. At precisely 6:10 a.m., the battalion attacked, with a mission to take the German Decauville Railroad in the midst of the forest. This would force the Germans out of the Argonne. The attack would take the Americans up a funnel-shaped valley, which became narrower as they advanced. On each side and the far side of the valley were steep ridges, occupied by German machine guns and infantry troops. As the Americans advanced up this shallow valley, the Germans opened up with intense machine gunfire from the left and right and the front. Soon, artillery poured in upon the beleaguered attackers, compelling the American attack to stall. The Americans were caught in a deadly crossfire. As York recollected:
The Germans… stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley].
The Germans took a heavy toll on the Americans with the survivors seeking cover wherever they could find it. The German machine guns had to be silenced. Sergeant Bernard Early was ordered to take three squads of men (including York’s squad) to get behind the German entrenchments to take out the machine guns. They successfully worked their way behind the German positions and quickly overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing to counter-attack against the U.S. troops.
While the Americans were contending with the prisoners, the Germans on the hill above poured machine gunfire into the area, killing six Americans and wounding three others. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge, which turned their weapons on the U.S. soldiers. The loss of the nine American soldiers put Corporal York in charge. As his men remained under cover, and guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.
As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. I don’t think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had. Sergeant Alvin York
One of York’s prisoners, German Lieutenant Paul Vollmer, emptied his pistol trying to kill York. Yet not one shot struck York. Seeing the mounting losses, he offered to surrender the unit on the hill. In the end, York and his men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines, silenced the German machine guns, and enabled the Americans to capture the Decauville Railroad. For his actions, York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. York’s life is relevant for us to contemplate as his physical courage on the battlefield reflected his moral courage in his spiritual life.
The Legacy of York’s Life
There are several lessons derived from the testimony of Alvin York that reach across the generations and speak to us today. The primary one is the impact that godly leaders made in Alvin’s life. Major Buxton (York’s Battalion Command) and Captain Danforth (Company Commander) had every reason to decline speaking with York –– foremost was the serious time constraints the unit was under. The 328th had only a few months to train raw recruits for combat. Despite this, they helped York overcome his doubts.
We talked along these lines for over an hour… We did not get angry or even raise our voice. We just examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which [sort of] favored war. I believed that the Lord was in that room. I seemed to somehow feel His presence there. Alvin York
These two biblically knowledgeable Christians gave hours of their precious time to help Sergeant York work through his doubts about the ability of a Christian to take up arms in defense of his nation. Their boldness for the faith, patience, and understanding were crucial in helping York fully commit to the tasks that lay ahead. Without the influence of Buxton and Danforth, York might have ended up not serving his country, and thereby not saving his unit from annihilation only months later and depriving us of an incredible Christian witness.
God used Sergeant Alvin York to save the lives of hundreds of Germans and Americans on that fateful day of October 8, 1918. In the decades since his heroic deed, the testimony of Sergeant York echoes across the ages to remind those who have inherited his legacy to live up to God’s calling. As Alvin York, we must endeavor to take our faith seriously, endeavoring to build our character and moral courage “muscles” by choosing to do the right thing every day. This will prepare us for the day of battle that lies ahead. Certainly, York was physically courageous on the battlefield, because he was morally courageous in his spiritual life.
Character is like a muscle; the more it is exercised and used, the stronger it becomes. Every time we choose to do what is right, we build character and moral courage. York consistently chose to follow the Lord’s Way and was faithful in the little things. As a result, he was able to accomplish unimaginable feats later in the heat of battle.
God has endowed each of us with distinct talents and gifts to fulfill His purpose for our lives. In the case of Alvin York, his sharp eye as an expert rifleman made the difference during the fierce battle for the Decauville Railroad in October 1918. With such confidence, believers can move forward knowing that God has equipped us in the right place and the right time to fulfill His plan for our and others’ lives. York’s life is an example of this –– of how an obscure, albeit talented Tennesseean sharpshooter would rise as a witness for Jesus to the nation. What a difference a Christian can make.
A conversation between Sergeant York and his Division Commander, General Lindsey, in January 1919 when they toured the site where York captured 132 Germans three months earlier.
General Lindsey: “York, how did you do it?”
Alvin York: “Sir, it is not man power. A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do.” And the general bowed his head and put his hand on my shoulder and solemnly said.”
General Lindsay: “York, you are right.”
Alvin York: “There can be no doubt in the world of the fact of the divine power being in that. No other power under heaven could bring a man out of a place like that. Men were killed on both sides of me, and I was the biggest and the most exposed of all. Over thirty machine guns were maintaining rapid fire at me, point-blank from a range of about twenty-five yards. When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time.”