My grandfather, Alvin C. York, was one of 10 children born and raised in a rural area of Tennessee. He learned to shoot early in life and always had a rifle or pistol handy. He hunted and shot in matches on Saturdays with his father. That experience served him well when he faced an overwhelming enemy force in France’s Argonne Forest on Oct. 8, 1918.
When the fight was over, York and seven others had captured 132 Germans (128 soldiers and four officers). The other seven had been pinned down behind cover by machine-gun fire from the surrounding high ground and were unable to assist him in the fight. At one point, a German officer and five men charged him with fixed bayonets. He had only a half of a clip left in his rifle, so he pulled his pistol – a .45 automatic – and shot the last one first. He worked his way up until he’d shot the last one, who was leading the charge.
For his actions, York was awarded the Medal of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre and numerous other medals. He returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States after spending several months in Europe waiting to go home.During this time, he attended the inaugural meeting of The American Legion as a representative of his unit, the 82nd “All American” Division.
He received many lucrative offers, but he turned them down because he felt he would be selling his uniform and service overseas. He returned to the mountains of Tennessee to marry his sweetheart, Miss Gracie, and raise his family on a farm in the Wolf River Valley of Pall Mall.
Because of his travels, my grandfather treasured education, which he had not had the privilege of receiving as a child and young man. He devoted time and effort to building and running a high school, the York Agricultural Institute. He worked tirelessly for the children of Fentress County and to bring education to the rural area where he was raised. On two occasions, he mortgaged his own home to make sure the school stayed open. He knew that the world was a larger place than the mountains and that to be competitive the children of his area needed an education.
When asked, my grandfather said that he’d like to be remembered for his work in education. In the late 1930s, he was persuaded to allow a movie to be made about his life and war exploits, as the world was once again facing war and patriotism in the United States was low. He was told that this would help the United States, so he agreed as long as the film was kept factual and did not “Hollywoodize” his story. “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper, was released in 1941.
At the start of World War II, York volunteered for duty with the Army. Due to his age and physical ability he did not see active duty, but was commissioned a colonel in the Signal Corps (for which he wore no uniform or received pay) and traveled around the country selling war bonds. A stroke left him partially paralyzed until his death on Sept. 2, 1964. He is buried in the family cemetery, close to where he was born and raised.
His life’s work and legacy live on through the York Historic State Park,the York Agricultural Institute and the Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation. Their mission is “legacy in action” by promoting educational opportunities and honoring veterans. Through this work, my grandfather’s story teaches the next generation about history and heroes. More than his actions on the battlefield, the man behind the medals makes Alvin York’s legacy so intriguing.
– Gerald E. York, retired Army colonel