Sergeant Alvin C. York, the most famous Medal of Honor winner in WWI history, a Tennessee treasure.
Alvin Cullom York was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee on December 13, 1887. He was the third of eleven children.
Most people in Crossville know York for his famous train ride to sign his movie contract. Where he met Hollywood producer Jessi Laski at Hotel Taylor. But what is little known about the honored soldier is he did not want to fight. When he enlisted for the draft he signed as a conscientious objector.
York’s father, William, passed away in 1911 leaving Alvin as the sole provider. He worked on the railroad and did some logging to make what he could. Eventually he developed a taste for alcohol and fighting, earning himself a lengthy arrest record.
Around 1915, York pulled himself out of his hole and turned his life over. He joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union and claimed himself as a pacifist. Which led him to sign his draft papers as a conscientious objector. Despite doing so, he was drafted in June of 1917, he had never been more than 50 miles from home.
Given the rank of Corporal, York fought with the Eighty-Second Division, G Company, 328th Infantry of the American Expeditionary Division. They fought in St. Mihiel and Chatel-Chehery.
On October 8, 1918 their mission was to capture the Decauville Railroad near Hill 223. This road supplied the Germans with food, weapons, and reinforcements. Corporal York and seventeen other men, under their acting Sergeant Bernard Early, set toward their objective at 6:10 a.m. that morning.
His heroic story is told as, “En route they stumbled on a few German soldiers eating breakfast. Surprised, the enemy dropped their plates and ran. Without firing, the seventeen Doughboys pursued the enemy and ran into the midst of a German squadron. In confusion, the ‘Boche’ believed a larger American contingent supported York’s band and hastily surrendered. As the Doughboys attended to the prisoners, machine-gun fire suddenly erupted from the ridge above them. A burst of bullets struck Sergeant Early, running diagonally across his chest and nearly cut him in two. Maxim gunners pinned down the American soldiers, who used their prisoners as cover to return fire. Two Americans lay wounded, while nine more, including York’s best friend, Murray Savage, died in the attack. Meanwhile, York maneuvered around the flank of the hill and picked off the machine gunners one by one, eventually killing twenty-three. He accomplished this armed only with an Enfield rifle and a .45 caliber service pistol. Before it was all over, six Germans charged York and he dispatched them with his pistol, shooting them in order from the back to the front. The tactic came from his days as a turkey hunter. If he had shot the soldiers front-to-back they would have scattered or taken cover.” (Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland, Birdwell & Dickinson, p. 161-162)
What is surprising is York’s name is not in the field report, it simply says, “Chatel-Chehery and the Hills 223, 180 and 244 were occupied.” Reading on it also reports, “ Eighty-ninth Division was relieved by the Thirty-seventh and ‘the enemy also was pushed back 3 or 4 kilometers on the east of the Meuse and lost 3,000 prisoners and 18 210-mortars.” (Birdwell & Dickinson, p. 162)
The reason York’s story is so big is because of one man, Saturday Evening Reporter, George Patullo. He saw York as a true American hero.
Patullo saw York’s story from a unique perspective. York preferred not to fight. He was a farmer, a family oriented man, a turkey hunter, and a man of Christian faith. Despite York’s objections, he never complained about going to war, he simply did what was asked of him. To Patullo, York was a story that needed to be told, and how right he was. Alvin York was a Tennessee man with family values.
When Alvin York arrived on Wall Street he was met with a parade. However, his heart was set on returning to Tennessee, to his fiance, Grace Williams. When he finally boarded the Tennessee Central Train in Rockwood, he headed towards Crossville where he was greeted by Mayor E.G. Tollett. A large crowd thanked him for his success on the battlefield. York replied with a short speech about his happiness to finally be home. Following the ceremony admirers found York in W.F. Brandy store enjoying a soft drink.
WWI did take some of Cumberland County’s men. It also gave the state of Tennessee a hero that is still celebrated today. But what stands out the most is the dedication and volunteerism. Southerners will always lend a helping hand.
- Cumberland County Tennessee, W. Calvin Dickenson
- Legends & Lore of East Tennessee, Shane S. Simmons
- Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland, Birdwell & Dickinson
- The Way it Was, Bryan Stanley
- Library of Congress
- Cumberland County Archives