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The Story Of Sgt. York, The Man Who Killed Or Captured More Than 100 Germans In A Single WWI Battle
On Oct. 8, 1918, while serving on the Western Front, Army Cpl. Alvin C. York led a charge against a German machine-gun position during World War I, which resulted in 20 enemy casualties attributed to York alone, and the capture of 132 German soldiers.
He did it with just seven men.
York grew up near the Tennessee–Kentucky border, the third of 11 children in a family that subsisted on hunting and farming, making York a skilled marksman. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, York was drafted into the Army after being denied conscientious-objector status, which allows an individual to defer military service based on freedom of thought, conscience, or religion — he became a Christian fundamentalist two years earlier.
Serving in the 82nd Infantry Division, York arrived in France in May 1918 and served on the Western Front, where brutal trench warfare, gas attacks, artillery bombardments, and charges across contested no-man’s land led to more than 13 million casualties between the two sides.
It would also prove to be the decisive theater of World War I.
A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment.
In October 1918, York was part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which would become the final Allied push against Germany’s forces on the Western Front. A corporal at the time, York’s battalion was given the task of seizing German-held positions across a valley. Nine of the 17 soldiers in York’s unit were cut down by fire from a German machine-gun nest atop a hill as they attempted to sneak behind the enemy lines. The casualties included the small unit’s ranking officer, leaving York and seven others facing off against a larger force manning a well-defended position, and York and his men without the element of surprise.
Unable to maneuver to cover, York returned fire on the enemy, with one well-placed round after another. York stood exposed under a barrage of enemy fire; his only chance of survival was to silence the enemy’s 35 guns.
His actions that day are described in a diary he kept, which was used as the basis for the 1928 autobiography “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary,” co-written by York and Thomas John Skeyhill, as well as a film based on his exploits called “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper.
The tone of his writing and sentiment he conveys is one that likely resonates with many veterans, past and present. York’s words on war and combat are a mixture of enthusiastic excitement, tinged with regret over the act of killing, even to save oneself.
Sgt. Alvin York.
“[T]hose machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful,” reads an excerpt from York’s diary. “I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down. … As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. 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.”
Following York’s lead, the remaining soldiers returned fire and as they maneuvered toward the enemy position, the German commander — who thought he was under attack by a much larger force — surrendered his garrison of roughly 90 men. On their way back to friendly lines, York and his squad took more prisoners, capturing a total of 132.
Though he consistently played down his actions, York was promoted to the rank of sergeant and on Dec. 31, 1919, received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military commendation.
York’s actions that day have not gone uncontested, as detailed in a 2006 article by The New York Times. Two corporals, William Cutting and Bernard Early, who were both wounded in the battle, claimed that the story surrounding York began with an interview with a reporter for The Saturday Evening Post, George Patullo, who chose to focus his story on York. The article made York an instant celebrity, yet Cutting insisted that the German officer did not surrender to York, but to him.
Attempts to find the exact site of the battle have also muddied the waters around York’s description of events that day, with historians, supporters, and critics unable to pin down the exact site where the battle took place.
"The question is, what is really York and what is after-the-fact addition and what is plain fabrication?" said Michael Birdwell in an interview with The New York Times. At the time of the interview, Birdwell was a historian and curator of York's papers at the Alvin C. York Historic Site, who is part of a team searching for the exact location of the battle. "I personally dismiss much of the document."
Birdwell and others have also questioned whether it was possible for York to single handedly take out 35 German machine guns.
Still, whether or not the exact details of the battle have been exaggerated does not detract from the heroism that York and his men displayed in the face of an overwhelming enemy.
During World War II, York attempted to re-enlist in the Army as an infantryman, but he was 54 years old, out of shape, nearly diabetic, and suffering from arthritis. His request to enlist was denied, but he was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps, touring training camps and taking part in bond drives to raise funds for the war effort.
Even though York was a commissioned officer and a celebrity in his own right, in newspaper headlines, and in the eyes of those he met and inspired with his deeds, he remained “Sergeant York,” until he died on Sept. 2, 1964. A humble man without pretense, who fought to save himself and his men against incredible odds.
A version of this article was originally published on Oct. 8, 2015.
Former Marine Commandant tells Trump that pardoning troops accused of war crimes 'relinquishes the moral high ground'
Former Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak has issued a statement urging President Donald Trump and members of Congress to oppose pardons for those accused or convicted of war crimes since, he argued, it would "relinquish the United States' moral high ground."
"If President Trump follows through on reports that he will mark Memorial Day by pardoning individuals accused or convicted of war crimes, he will betray these ideals and undermine decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country's fighting forces the envy of the world," said Krulak, who served in the Marine Corps for more than three decades before retiring in 1999 as the 31st Commandant.
Editor's Note: The following story highlights a veteran at Associated Materials. Committed to including talented members of the military community in its workplace, Associated Materials Incorporated is a client of Hirepurpose, a Task & Purpose sister company. Learn more here.
Associated Materials, a residential and commercial siding and window manufacturer based in Ohio, employs people from a variety of backgrounds. The company gives them an opportunity to work hard and grow within the organization. For Tim Betsinger, Elizabeth Dennis, and Tanika Carroll, all military veterans with wide-ranging experience, Associated Materials has provided a work environment similar to the military and a company culture that feels more like family than work.
President Donald Trump will nominate Barbara Barrett to serve as the next Air Force secretary, the president announced on Tuesday.
"I am pleased to announce my nomination of Barbara Barrett of Arizona, and former Chairman of the Aerospace Corporation, to be the next Secretary of the Air Force," Trump tweeted. "She will be an outstanding Secretary! #FlyFightWin"
The Trump administration is trying to assure Congress that it does not want to start a war with Iran, but some lawmakers who fought in Iraq are not so sure.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford both briefed Congress on Tuesday about Iran. Shanahan told reporters earlier on Tuesday that the U.S. military buildup in the region has stopped Iran and its proxies from attacking U.S. forces, but the crisis is not yet over.
"We've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans," Shanahan said. "That doesn't mean that the threats that we've previously identified have gone away. Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region."
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump warned on Monday Iran would be met with "great force" if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East, and government sources said Washington strongly suspects Shi'ite militias with ties to Tehran were behind a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything," Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Monday evening for an event in Pennsylvania. "If they do something, it will be met with great force but we have no indication that they will."