Saturday, December 03, 2005

Profile of a Great American

On December 13, 1887 in a small cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee, a great American hero was born. Alvin Cullom York was the third of eleven children born to William York. Raised on a farm, Alvin learned to become an expert marksman early, helping to feed the family by hunting to supplement the meager crops they raised on their farm.

At a time and place when education was seen as a hindrance to farm chores, Alvin received a mere nine months of schooling as a lad. As a young man, he took work as a day laborer—his nights less profitably spent drinking and gambling in unlicensed bars known as “Blind Tigers”. He was widely considered to be a young man going nowhere—in fact, a nuisance—when his life took an unexpected turn at the age of 26.

During a bar fight in Kentucky in 1914, Alvin’s best friend Everett Delk was killed. This convinced Alvin that he had better change his ways lest he befall a similar fate. Later that same year, he attended a revival hosted by the Church of Christ in Christian Union. This somewhat redundantly named fundamentalist sect had a rather strict philosophy—no drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and definitely no violence or war.

These two events conspired to work a very fundamental change in Alvin York, for by all accounts his conversion to this brand of Christianity was complete and unabashed—he ceased altogether drinking, gambling, and fighting. It was through the church that he was to meet his wife, Gracie. His newly found state of grace was not to be untroubled for long.

On April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany and a draft was instituted. Receiving his draft notice, he wrote “Dont want to fight.” on it at the urging of his pastor. His case was reviewed, and re-reviewed, but ultimately rejected because his sect was not officially recognized. Having been rejected for conscientious objector status, York reluctantly reported for training at Camp Gordon in Georgia. After much soul searching and debate, York conceded that there were times when not fighting was more a more immoral act than the fighting itself—and with that reluctant concession he was bound for France, and the frontlines.

Before sunrise on October 9, 1918, seventeen soldiers were dispatched to take command of Decauville railroad, including one Corporal York. Unfortunately, the map was in French instead of English, and a misreading of the map put them behind enemy lines. After a brief and confused firefight, a larger German force surrendered to the squad—only to have them un-surrender when it became clear that the Americans were vastly outnumbered. Turning their machine guns around, the German forces pinned down the squad and killed nine of their number. Receiving the order to silence the machine guns, Corporal York did exactly that.

There are varying accounts about what exactly happened next, but the one detail that is not in dispute is that Corporal York’s actions saved his squad, and when the shooting was done twenty-five German soldiers were dead, thirty-five German machine guns were out of the fight, and the squad of eight Americans marched 132 German prisoners back to friendly lines.

Returning to the United States, the now promoted Sergeant York avoided the limelight, choosing to return home to his wife and a quiet life—but this was not to be. Throughout the 1920s, he was an active booster for Democratic politicians and causes, and it was through this activism that he brought many infrastructure improvements to his home county. He also raised money to found York Institute, which helped many youths to get a high school degree.

A dedicated isolationist in the 1930s, Alvin York largely receded from the public’s view. This was not to last however, when the persistent Jesse Lasky finally prevailed upon him to make a film of his exploits—the film, released in 1941, was to ultimately earn Gary Cooper the best actor award in 1942. It was through his relationship with Lasky that York was to once again realize that there was such a thing as a moral war.

With Europe already embroiled in the Second World War, York joined the Fight for Freedom Committee which advocated more American involvement in the expanding European conflict. This stance was to put him at loggerheads with another American icon, Charles Lindberg, until the attack on Pearl Harbor erased all doubt in anyone’s mind about the proper stance for America.

Despite his willingness to join up and fight once again, age and health kept York out of the Army.

Throughout the 1950s, the now destitute York was harassed by the IRS over proceeds from the 1941 movie—a dispute that was only finally resolved by order of President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

On September 2, 1964, York, bedridden since a stroke ten years earlier, finally passed away. He was buried with full military honors in his hometown of Pall Mall. Asked before his death what he wanted to be remembered for, York replied that his promotion of education for rural Tennessee was what he hoped his legacy would be.

US Army Sergeant Alvin C. York was a great American and a good man: warrior in times of evil, advocate for peace, good and active citizen of his community, husband, and father.


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