Over 100 years after the conclusion of World War I, Alvin York’s heroics remain difficult to fathom.
“Sergeant York,” the one-time conscientious objector from Tennessee who never advanced beyond the third grade, would transform from an anonymous corporal to a national hero following his actions in the Argonne Forest on the morning of October 8, 1918.
But his path to becoming a military icon almost never materialized.
York put up heavy resistance as the draft plucked young men from across America and plunged them into military service.
Due to his newfound Christian faith, York doubted whether he was capable of taking another human life.
After applying for a religious exemption — and appealing four times — York was thrust into service nonetheless.
Quickly, his superiors, including his battalion commander, Maj. George Edward Buxton, were made aware of his concerns.
Perhaps sensing honesty in York’s conundrum, Buxton, a devout Christian himself, allowed the hesitant recruit to take a 10-day hiatus to consider his future.
Call it a spiritual revelation, but whatever York experienced during the 10-day span certainly did the trick, and he reported back to his unit determined to fight.
By the time October 1918 rolled around, York was a battle-hardened veteran, having participated in numerous assaults along the Western Front.
He witnessed sheer devastation on the front lines.
Friends were mutilated as the result of incessant shelling. Others fell victim to German chemical attacks, their final breaths taken in agony.
But York remained steadfast, and on October 8, the unassuming squad leader who once wrote in his 1928 autobiography that his men “almost led me” would take on an unprecedented role in military history.
Just before 6 a.m., York and the men from 2nd Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, began to make their way toward Castle Hill and into an adjacent valley, a critical juncture on their way to securing a roadway and rail line the Germans used as primary supply routes.
Unbeknownst to the attackers, the Germans had positioned over 50 machine guns with clear views of the valley where the Americans were ordered to assault.
At 6:10 a.m., rifle fire cracked the air as the Americans fired the first shots at German defenses, many of whom were caught off guard due the lack of an American artillery barrage that was supposed to precede the assault.
Miles away, the American gun line had not yet received the order to fire — a mistake that wound up benefiting York and the men of the 82nd.
Castle Hill was quickly taken, but as the Americans entered the valley, the Germans unleashed a hailstorm of ammunition.
“So you see we were getting it from the front and both flanks,” York described.
“Well, the first and second waves got about halfway across the valley and then were held up by machine gun fire from the three sides. It was awful. Our losses were very heavy. ... They stopped us dead in our tracks."
Americans were dropping to the left and right of York, who, like the rest of the men, stayed as low as humanly possible.
Then an order came down for a team of 17 men to maneuver to the rear of the German machine guns and take them out.
As they readied to advance, the delayed American artillery shells finally arrived, pounding German lines and covering the raiding party in a fortuitous turn of events.
Finding a gap in the German defenses, York and the small detachment made for the machine gun emplacements.
They first spotted weary German soldiers at a rear command post who were seated and eating breakfast.
Mass confusion ensued as the 17 Americans charged the unsuspecting post. Believing the number of Americans to be much greater, the Germans surrendered.
York’s detachment took over 70 Germans prisoner.
As the bewilderment unfolded, a nearby German unit occupying higher ground saw what was happening and signaled to their captured comrades to hit the deck.
The 17 Americans suddenly made for easy targets, and the Germans opened up, killing six and wounding three more.
York, who was the only non-commissioned officer left standing, slowly worked his way up the hill toward the German guns while the remaining men guarded the prisoners.
“At first I was shooting from a prone position; that is lying down; jes [sic] like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee," he recalled in his memoir.
"I jes couldn’t miss a German’s head or body at that distance. And I didn’t. ... Every time a head come up I done knocked it down.”
York killed at least three machine gun crews, yelling at the Germans all the while to surrender.
As York advanced, a German officer and five other soldiers emerged from a trench with fixed bayonets and charged at the Tennessean.
“They had about 25 yards to come and they were coming right smart,” York wrote. “I only had about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too.”
York set his sights on the men in the rear of the charge first.
“That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all.”
One German officer, having seen too many of his men fall to York’s tenacity, reluctantly called out to the American to offer surrender.
“English?” he asked.
“No, American,” York answered.
“Good Lord,” the exasperated German responded.
By the time the final shots were fired, York had singlehandedly killed 25 Germans. He and his small detachment claimed 132 German prisoners and dismantled 35 enemy machine guns.
For his actions, York was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which, following an investigation, was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, presented by Gen. John Pershing.
From France, York received the Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honour and the Medaille Militaire. He was also awarded Italy’s Croce al Merito di Guerra and Montenegro’s Order of Prince Danilo I.
The international accolades made him a national hero in the United States.
Decades later, his story would be immortalized in an Oscar-winning performance by Gary Cooper in the 1941 film, “Sergeant York.”
Most recently, his story was the subject of a graphic comic produced by the Association of the United States Army.
Alvin York died at a veterans hospital on Sept. 2, 1964. He was 76 years old.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.