H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

The WWI hero used his fame for charity.

Alvin Cullum York (1887-1964), one of America’s most famous World War I heroes, was born in rural Fentress Country, Tennessee as the third of eventually eleven siblings. The father of the impoverished family, William, supplemented their farming with blacksmithing. The boys only attended school for 9 months before helping to support the household by fishing, hunting and working as laborers for hire. When his father died, 14-year-old Alvin was the oldest boy still living at home and he had to help raise the others. Though he became a heavy drinker with a habit of fighting in bars and getting arrested at an early age, he was also known as a skilled logger and railroad construction worker. At the age of 28, he had a religious epiphany and became a Protestant.
York’s appeal for conscientious objector status
Two years later, in 1917, he registered for draft as mandated by the Selective Service Act, but couldn’t reconcile war with his recently found faith. His appeal to be accepted as a conscious objector was rejected; afterwards, he refused to sign further documents requesting dismissal for religious reasons or for being the family’s sole support. As a consequence, he was drafted into the 82nd Infantry Division, the predecessor of the famous 82nd Airborne of WWII.

York was torn between his faith and his duty for his country. Eventually, he talked to his company and battalion commanders about his struggle. It was the two of them, the second being a devout Christian, who convinced him that God wanted him to fight referring to Bible passages such as Mark 12:17, Luke 22:36 and John 18:36.

Hill 223, the site of York’s heroic actions
Once over in Europe, York fought in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the battle that saw then-Lt. Col. George Patton wounded as well as the phrases “D-Day” and “H-Hour” used by American commanders for the first time. His true moment of heroism came soon after, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that directly led to the end of the war. On October 8, 1918, his battalion was moving to secure Hill 223 near an important railroad line.

As York’s company was advancing across a valley with a stream, they suddenly came under withering machine gun fire from several German positions located along the ridges. In York’s own words: “The Germans got us and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”

Map of the engagement
York, a corporal at the time, was instructed to move out with three other NCOs and thirteen privates to infiltrate the German lines and take out the guns firing on the company. The group made its way behind the Germans and managed to overrun a local HQ just as soldiers there were preparing to move out on a counterattack on the pinned American company. They took the Germans captive and were busy dealing with them, when enemy machine guns barked up suddenly, cutting down six Americans and wounding three others.
Sgt. York shortly after the war at the site of his engagement with the German machine guns
York was the only NCO still standing. He ordered the remaining soldiers to stay in cover and guard the prisoners, and moved out alone to take out the guns. Using his hunting skills and the superior marksmanship all American infantrymen were taught, he engaged the enemy machine gun nest, shooting soldiers one by one. At one point, just as his rifle emptied, six Germans jumped out from a nearby trench and rushed at him with bayonets. He quickly drew his Colt holding 7 rounds and shot them all before they could reach him. While this was happening, the German battalion commander, First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer emptied his own pistol at York but, whether by divine intervention or sheer luck, all of his shots missed.

Seeing his failure at taking the lone American down, Vollmer offered his surrender to York, who accepted it, taking all of his soldiers captive. Much to the company’s amazement, York’s remaining men returned from the hillside with 132 German POWs in tow. York was promoted to sergeant and received the Distinguished Service Cross, which was soon upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He also received numerous other medals for his unprecedented feat, including the French Légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre. When receiving the MOH from General Lindsey, he said “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do,” and the General replied “York, you are right.”

Sgt. York with the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre
York’s heroic actions made headlines in the U.S. in April 1919. Returning stateside, he became a star even before his discharge from the Army. He was given a tour of the New York subway in a special car and received a standing ovation from the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Numerous times he was offered money for paid appearances, product endorsements and movie rights, but he turned these down, putting his fame in the service of charitable and civic causes instead. The one gift he accepted was a farm paid for by public subscription but then he got into debt to stock it with equipment.
York returning to his mother Mary after the war
Meanwhile, he used his popularity to improve the life of his fellow Fentress County residents, especially children from the same impoverished background as his. He successfully campaigned for a highway through the mountains to serve his home area; founded and for a time led the York Agricultural Institute, a vocational training school; mortgaged his farm during the Great Depression to provide bus transportation for students; and sold the film rights to his life to fund an interdenominational Bible school in the 1940s. He also worked as a project superintendent in the Civilian Conservation Corp, creating the artificial Byrd Lake in Cumberland Mountain State Park.
York with his mother and a younger sister in the summer of 1919
He tried to enlist again during World War II but was found too old, overweight and near-diabetic. Instead of combat service, he was commissioned as a major in the Signal Corps, where he participated in bond drives, usually paying his own travel expenses. He also served on his county draft board. Distressed that so many Fentress Country men were rejected due to illiteracy, he unsuccessfully offered to organize and lead an illiterate battalion comprised of local crack shots from the mountains.
Alvin York as an old man
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