June 21, 2024

Profiles of Valor: The York Family Legacy

“Grandpa, you’re in the encyclopedia! You’re famous!”

At a recent celebration of the 75th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, I had the opportunity to spend time with some exceptional Patriots. Among them were fellow Tennesseans who are the descendants of the most famous World War I Medal of Honor recipient, SGT Alvin C. York, whose life story was immortalized in the film “Sergeant York.”

York embodied the tough and resilient Scots-Irish ancestry of many early settlers in East Tennessee, as do his descendants. As you may recall from the amazing accounts of his actions in October 1918 with the 328th Infantry, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the Argonne Forest, Alvin demonstrated his backwoodsman marksmanship skills by taking out German machine gunners. Realizing they were no match for his sniping capabilities, the German commander and his men surrendered to York and his seven-man unit.

How many men surrendered? York’s brigade commander, BG Julian Lindsey, later greeted him by saying, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army.” York replied: “No, sir. I got only 132.” Yeah, an eight-man unit marched 132 German prisoners off that hillside.

Recently, SGT York’s grandson COL Gerald E. York (USA, Ret), Debbie York (Executive Director of the Sgt York Patriotic Foundation), and Angela York joined us for a reception at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. They and many other York family members still live in SGT York’s rural community of Pall Mall, now the home of the York State Historic Park.

I asked Gerald about his grandfather’s children and grandchildren who were inspired to serve our country, and the list is considerable.

Among SGT York’s Veteran sons was Gerald’s father, George Edward Buxton York (USA), named after Alvin York’s 82nd Division Major, Woodrow Wilson York (USA), and Thomas Jefferson York (USAF).

SGT York’s Veteran grandchildren include Alvin C. York Jr.‘s sons, Kenny and Ronnie, both U.S. Army. Woodrow Wilson York’s daughter Mary served in the Air Force, his son William was a Marine, and his son Woody served in the Tennessee National Guard. And SGT York’s great-grandchildren are continuing that legacy, including Gerald’s son, Gerald E. York II, an Operation Iraqi Freedom Army combat Veteran.

As for Gerald, he joined the Army through the ROTC program at Vanderbilt University and volunteered for service in Vietnam, reporting for duty in November 1969. Once deployed, he recalls: “A major said, 'We have a special program in MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam], and we want to make you an adviser.’ I said, ‘Sir, I appreciate it, but I really didn’t volunteer to come over here to observe. I want to be here with an American unit. I don’t want to be an adviser.’” But then-LT York became an intelligence officer advising Phoenix Loc Ninh District units on where to capture or kill top Viet Cong leaders. After a month in a compound near the Cambodian border, his unit came under a fierce attack lasting five days. “I’m like, ‘Well, welcome to Vietnam.’”

Soon thereafter, Gerald received orders to report to his Colonel in Bien Hoa (near Saigon). Wondering what he had done wrong, Gerald told his commanding officer, “Sir, I thought I was doing a decent job.” The response was, “You’re doing an excellent job,” but the Colonel had recently learned that Gerald was the grandson of Alvin York. The Colonel’s concern: “I had a guy in my command whose father won a Silver Star in World War II. He was determined to get a Silver Star. And he did — posthumously. So I need to know, what’s your objective here? You volunteered to come. Why are you here?”

Gerald replied, “Sir, I volunteered to come with an American unit because I figured I was going to go to Vietnam sometime. I’m here to serve my country.” His Colonel responded, “You’re not trying to outdo your grandfather?” Gerald said: “Sir, what my grandfather did, he didn’t set out to do. It was something he did to save lives, not to take lives. It was just the time and the place, and he had the skill sets to accomplish what he did. I could never equal my grandfather. My objective in Vietnam is to do the best job I can do, keep my people safe, and go home safe. I’m not planning on doing anything crazy.” He said, “OK,” and sent Gerald back to Loc Ninh. (He offers more insights on his grandfather and Vietnam in an interview with HistoryNet and the American Veterans Center interview.)

After returning stateside, he served as the 18th Airborne Corps intel officer at Fort Bragg and then as Defense Intelligence Agency base commander at Fort MacArthur, California, and in Yongsan, South Korea. The last of his 31 years of active service were as Chief of Operations, Defense HUMINT Service, Defense Intelligence Agency offices in Washington. His awards include the Parachute Badge, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Meritorious Service Medal (3).

On how he was inspired by his grandfather, Gerald says he first became aware of his heroic service when he was in fifth grade: “The teacher called on me one day and said, ‘I would like for you to come up and get the encyclopedia and look up your grandfather.’ I’m thinking, ‘Why would my grandfather be in the encyclopedia?’ I opened the encyclopedia, and she said, ‘I want you to read what it says.’ So I read it to the class and thought, ‘Wow, my grandfather’s in the encyclopedia.’ Even though I’d seen visitors coming in and I knew there was a movie [Sergeant York, 1941, starring Gary Cooper] because we had a copy of it, that’s the first time I really realized that he was known outside of our family.”

Seeing his grandfather soon thereafter, Gerald said, “Grandpa, you’re in the encyclopedia! You’re famous!” Alvin York laughed and responded, “No, no, not really,” and would change the subject, choosing not to speak much about his experience in warfare.

Humility was the order of the day: “To me, he was just a grandfather and was always jovial. One time, I got in trouble and hid behind him, and he wouldn’t let my father spank me. He said, "No, no, it’s OK.‘ He was just a very nice, very good grandfather. The values he gave me had more of an impact than him being famous. You always told the truth. You always respected others.”

Asked how his grandfather recalled World War I, Gerald says: “His thinking was we had gone and won peace [in World War I], won freedom forever. Later in life, as World War II was coming, his thinking changed. We learned that freedom is not something that you win once and have forever. You only get a lease on freedom. We made a payment on it in World War I.” Regarding the challenges to freedom which followed, Alvin said: “Now that the world’s involved again in conflict, it’s time for us to make another payment. Freedom is not something you are guaranteed. Freedom is something that you have to constantly defend.”

Since 2005, in addition to his professional security consulting business, Gerald has been the Chairman of the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.

To the York family Veterans: We are grateful for your example of valor — humble American Patriots defending Liberty for all. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(Read more Profiles of Valor here.)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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