Childhood & Early Life
Alvin York was born on 13th December 1887 in Fentress County, Tennessee to William Uriah York and Mary Elizabeth York. He was third of the eleven children.
William Uriah worked as a blacksmith. Along with his sons, he worked on the family farm, went for hunting and fishing to help get food for the family. Due to financial issues, York and his brother could attend school only for nine months.
When his father died in 1911, he took up jobs as labor and blacksmith to support his family.
In his early adulthood, he was prone to heavy drinking and violent behavior which got him in problems several times. However, in the1915, he converted and joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Consequently, he gave up his previous way of living and became a song leader and a Sunday school teacher at the local church.
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When the US entered the First World War in 1917, Alvin York received draft notice. His request for exemption as conscientious-objector was denied and he was drafted into the army in November 1917.
He began his army service at 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, Camp Gordon in Georgia. Still, because of his religious beliefs, he had no desire to go to war or kill.
It was only after his extensive conversation with his superior Major G. Edward Buxton, followed by a visit to his home (where he prayed and fasted) that he was finally convinced to fight.
In September 1918, Alvin York became a part of the successful Saint-Mihiel offensive after which he was elevated to the position of corporal.
On October 8, 1918, he displayed exemplary courage during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In the course of an attack, he single-handedly killed many German soldiers, destroyed their machine guns and took numerous German soldiers as captives. After this, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Alvin York returned in the spring of 1919 and received a hero’s welcome. He received numerous business offers for appearances, product endorsements, newspaper articles, and movie rights to his life story; however, he refused all owing to his religious faith and went to lend his support to various charitable and civic causes.
He campaigned for a road to be built for the benefit of his native region which eventually led to the construction of Alvin C. York Highway.
The Rotary Club of Nashville raised money for the purchase of a home and a farm for York; however, the money was not enough. This ultimately left him with an unfinished home and installment payments on the property. The money was raised towards the end of 1921 after he asked for public help.
In 1920s, he laid the foundation of ‘Alvin C. York Foundation’ with the objective of enhancing educational infrastructure in the region of Tennessee.
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In 1926, he established a public high school, Alvin C. York Institute (also known as Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute or York Institute) in Jamestown, Tennessee with the help of funds he raised by touring the US and gathering public attention using his war hero status. He also received funds from the state.
In 1928, his autobiography ‘Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary’ was published. It was edited by Tom Skeyhill.
In 1935, he took up a job as project superintendent with the Civilian Conservation Corps and supervised the construction of Byrd Lake in Cumberland Mountain State Park. He worked as the park's superintendent until 1940.
In 1941, he agreed for a film to be made on his life in order to finance an interdenominational Bible school. The film, ‘Sergeant York’ starred Gary Cooper and was a box office success.
The movie aggravated his financial problems as incompetent management of income, created tax issues with the Internal Revenue Service. It took ten years and public donation to finally settle his account.
Before the Second World War, he became a strong voice for interventionism, calling for U.S. involvement in the war.
During the war, he wanted to re-enlist in the army; however, due to health issues, he was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps. In this role, he engaged in bond tours, recruitment drives and camp inspections.
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a battalion of seventeen men led by Sergeant Bernard Early were ordered to take out a German machine-gun emplacement that was hindering the regiment’s march forward. They captured few German soldiers but came under heavy firing behind enemy lines which killed and wounded nine of their men including Early.
Alvin York assumed charge as the commander and while his men guarded the prisoners, he attacked firing fiercely at the enemy with precision. He killed more than 20 German soldiers. The German commander finally surrendered a garrison of 90 men. While on their way back to the American lines, he captured more German soldiers, taking the total number to 132.
Awards & Achievements
For his bravery during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Alvin York was awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross which was very soon upgraded to ‘The Medal of Honor’, the highest personal military decoration of the United States.
He received nearly 50 decorations including Croix de Guerre, the ‘Medaille Militaire’ and the ‘Legion of Honour’ from France, ‘War Medal’ from Montenegro and ‘Croce al Merito di Guerra’ from Italy.
Apart from these, he was also a recipient of ‘World War I Victory Medal’ (three bronze service stars), ‘World War II Victory Medal’ and ‘American Campaign Medal’.
Numerous monuments and places were named after him, specifically the ‘Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park’. The park is open for visitors.
Family & Personal Life
Alvin York married Gracie Loretta Williams on 7th June 1919 and the couple had eight children.
He was plagued by health issues all through his life. He went through a gall bladder surgery, suffered from pneumonia, had weight issues and suffered a stroke.
His health further deteriorated and he was bed ridden from 1954 onwards. On 2 September 1964, he died of cerebral hemorrhage at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.