During WWI, Alvin York did something that seemed impossible: he killed some 20 German soldiers and captured 132 of them single-handedly. With nothing but a rifle and a pistol. And if that didn’t amaze you enough yet, he fought against 32 machine guns along with rifles and pistols. If that wasn’t enough, he was just out there in the open while all that was happening. A German officer emptied an entire pistol magazine without hitting him and then tried to surrender, and York allowed him to.

A Humble Church-Goer Turned Badass

Before World War I, Alvin regularly sang to and attended the church, but he was known to hit the bottle pretty heavy and was something of a brawler.  Then he had a religious conversion to a small evangelical congregation and cleaned up his act. When the war broke, he “was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”

York was drafted into the army and answered the call to the colors but stated he was a pacifist and didn’t want to take up the rifle and kill Germans. Rather than grant him conscientious objector status his command was able to convince him that fighting the Germans was not incompatible with his religious convictions.  They did one Hell of a job with that too.

In October 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Alvin’s team from the 82nd Division tried to capture a machine gun German position near Hill 223, but the Germans got them good. According to him, “Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out.”

His commanding officer ordered the remaining allies to infiltrate the German lines and take down their machine guns. They managed to do just that and got the drop on the Germans who surrendered. York and just 17 Doughboys found themselves guarding more than 100 Germans. Another group of German troops arrived at the position and seeing what was happening open fire on York and his men. Several were killed and wounded and the German prisoners hit the deck to avoid the crossfire.

Sgt. Alvin C. York Abstract.

How He Did It

When the exchange of bullets began, Alvin had no time to duck or cover from the enemies’ artillery. So he was just there exposed and open while he picked off the German soldiers who showed themselves one by one using his pistol. As mentioned above, he didn’t want to kill people, so while he was out there taking out the Germans one by one, he was also yelling for them to just surrender. Here’s what happened as narrated by Alvin York himself based on his recollection of what happened:

In the middle of the fight, a German officer and five men jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to come, and they were coming right smart. I only had about half a clip left in my rifle, but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too.

I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see, we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn’t time to think of that. I guess I just naturally did it. I knew, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them, the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.

Then I returned to the rifle and kept right on after those machine guns. I knew now that if I did keep my head and didn’t run out of ammunition, I had them. So I done hollered to them to come down and give up. I didn’t want to kill any more’n I had to. I would tech a couple of them off and holler again. But I guess they couldn’t understand my language, or else they couldn’t hear me in the awful racket that was going on all around. Over twenty Germans were killed by this time–and I got hold of the German major. After he saw me stop the six Germans who charged with fixed bayonets, he got up off the ground and walked over to me and yelled, “English?”

I said, “No, not English.”

He said, “What?”

I said, “American.”

He said, “Good —–!” Then he said, “If you don’t shoot anymore, I will make them give up.” I had killed over twenty before the German major said he would make them give up. I covered him with my automatic and told him if he didn’t make them stop firing, I would take off his head next. And he knew I meant it. He told me if I didn’t kill him, and if I stopped shooting the others in the trench, he would make them surrender.”

And so, the Germans dropped their weapons and surrendered. He ordered them to line up and carry the wounded American soldiers, for as he said, “I wasn’t a-goin’ to leave any good American boys lying out there to die. So I made the Germans carry them. And they did.”

Photo of Sergeant Alvin C. York after his return to his Tennessee home.

Alvin survived the war and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious decoration that a soldier could receive. He tried to re-enlist in World War II but was denied due to his age and health condition. So instead, he toured training camps to inspire and boost the morale of the troops.