World War I was fought on an unprecedented scale — 32 countries mobilized more than 70 million military personnel over the course of the conflict. Countless planes, trains, and automobiles were pressed into service on both sides of the war.
Because of the scale of the conflict, victory in World War I came at enormous cost. Young men lost their lives by the millions and the world was plunged into chaos. Feats of heroism and courage were commonplace in the skies, seas, and trenches. What began as a war between aristocrats and royals became a war decided by the brave actions of extraordinary individuals facing grave danger on the front lines.
Today, we celebrate and remember the actions of one of these brave individuals — Alvin York.
Born in a log cabin in rural Tennessee, Alvin York was the third of eleven children. The York family supported themselves by farming and hunting, sometimes struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table. York’s dad died at a young age — leaving him to take care of his younger siblings and feed his family by hunting, fishing, farming, and hiring himself out for labor.
York was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917. Upon being drafted, York applied for conscientious-objector status because his religious beliefs precluded him from taking part in violence. However, York was denied conscientious-objector status and agreed to serve his country to the best of his ability, arriving on the Western Front in 1918.
Despite his initial reservations about combat, York made an indelible mark on World War I during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. York was part of a group of 17 American soldiers instructed to infiltrate German lines and capture German machine gun nests. After taking several casualties and being pinned down by machine gun fire, York made a decision that would change the course of the offensive.
“[T]hose machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful…. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down…. As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them….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.” — Alvin York
York and his men stormed the machine gun nest, taking 132 Germans prisoner — despite having a squad of only 8 men. York himself killed more than 20 German soldiers and remained on the front lines of the war until 10 days before the armistice.
In 1919, the United States Government bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor on Alvin York. York became widely recognized as the “war’s biggest hero” and General John J. Pershing referred to York as “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I. His feats of bravery and courage were so compelling that they were memorialized in a 1941 feature film, Sergeant York, as seen at the top of this page.
York’s commitment to public service continued after the war, founding a school for underprivileged children in Tennessee that remains open to this day. York died in 1964, ending a life characterized by service and courage. After his death, President Lyndon Baines Johnson held him up as “a symbol of American courage and sacrifice” and argued York embodied “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”
Like many Americans, Alvin York displayed bravery and nerves of steel despite being thrust into the most violent and chaotic conflict the world had ever seen. A farm boy from rural Tennessee, York was an ordinary American whose courage allowed him to succeed in extraordinary circumstances. Today is the 100th year anniversary of Alvin York’s courageous charge at Argonne. We join Americans everywhere in paying our respects to his bravery and courage.
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