Profiles of Valor: Alvin C. York
“I think any man who talks against the interests of his own country ought to be arrested and put in jail, not excepting senators and colonels.”
In 1949, Armed Forces Day consolidated the separate Army, Navy, and Air Force Days of celebration into one event.
Ahead of this month’s upcoming AFD events, I was reviewing some archival photos of previous military parades here in Chattanooga, Tennessee — recalling a photo of revered World War I Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York, who was a participant in the first parade 74 years ago. His life story was immortalized in the film “Sergeant York.”
The longest continuously running Armed Forces Day parade in America is in Chattanooga, the Birthplace of the Medal of Honor, where the First Medals were awarded for the actions of Andrews’ Raiders in 1862. For that reason, it is the home of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, and recipients of our nation’s highest military award have been prominent participants in Armed Forces Day events since its inception.
The Grand Marshals of that very first parade were Medal of Honor recipients Sergeant York, chauffeuring a World War II-era jeep in the back of which were other Tennessee recipients, Sergeant Major Paul B. Huff, Sergeant Charles H. Coolidge, and Sergeant Raymond H. Cooley. What a remarkable concentration of valor and patriotism in that vehicle.
I originally posted that photo in a tribute to SGT Coolidge, at the time the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the WWII European Theater.
SGT Alvin Cullium York was a character, as you can see in his face as he banters with his distinguished passengers.
Born in a two-room cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee, and one of 11 children, he embodied the tough and resilient Scots-Irish ancestry of many early settlers in East Tennessee, including my own family, who settled here prior to the American Revolution. Alvin worked on his family’s meager farm seasonally, and when his father died in 1911, he helped raise his siblings.
In his formative years, he was a heavy drinker and bar fighter until his mother, a devout Christian, reformed his ways. He was also a crack sharpshooter with his long rifle and was famous regionally as such.
At the onset of WWI, York, age 29, said: “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.” When he registered for the draft, when asked the question, “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” he responded: “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.” He made claim as a conscientious objector, which did not preclude military service, but allowed him to serve in ways that did not require direct combat.
From the day he was drafted to the day he returned 18 months later, he kept a daily diary. In it he noted that his company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, also a Christian, convinced him that he was meant to fight for what was good and right. Returning to his unit after leave, Alvin took up arms.
On October 8, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, York would distinguish himself as a fearless leader.
As he recalled: “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.”
Moving toward the German line using his stealth hunting and marksmanship skills, York recalled: “Those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush. … As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. … All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
German Army officer Paul Vollmer charged York’s position and emptied his pistol trying to kill him. York, uninjured, demanded the officer surrender, at which time York and the remaining seven men in his unit who had not been killed rounded up the German prisoners and marched them off the hill.
His brigade commander, Brigadier General Julian Lindsey, greeted him, saying, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army.” York replied: “No, sir. I got only 132.” He had successfully silenced the machine-gun positions and enabled the 328th Infantry to renew its attack.
Shortly after the attack, York was promoted to sergeant and awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. Within months, upon review of his actions by his senior command, his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and eventually he earned almost 50 other decorations.
On May 22, 1919, when York returned to the United States, his actions were all ready legendary, having been published in the Saturday Evening Post. Upon docking in New York, he was greeted by a large crowd and many reporters. Of the published reports, he said: “by the time they had finished writing about me in their newspapers I had whipped the whole German army single-handed. Ho ho. Those newspapermen!” Waning nothing of the fame bestowed upon him, he wrote in his journal that he just wanted to return to his someplace in Pall Mall, Tennessee “where I belonged.”
Later, describing to Gen. Lindsey the actions noted succinctly in his Medal of Honor citation, York humbly said, “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”
In January 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in a Memorial Day address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, York said: “Liberty and freedom are so very precious that you do not fight and win them once and stop. They are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!”
He added, “I think any man who talks against the interests of his own country ought to be arrested and put in jail, not excepting senators and colonels.”
It is well he is not witness to the disgraceful state of leftist “leadership” today, which disparages our nation and the American Liberty he and so many others have fought to defend.
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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