Sgt. Alvin York was a United States Army soldier and one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I. Born in rural Tennessee, Sgt. York had little formal education but was an excellent marksman from a young age. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army, where he served with distinction on the battlefields of France.
York’s Early Life and Rise to Fame
Sgt. York was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, on Dec. 13, 1887. He had a difficult childhood and suffered from poverty, but he was an excellent hunter even as a child. He also joined his local church and gained considerable respect from the community for his knowledge of the Bible. In 1917, at 29, he enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to Company G of the 328th Infantry Regiment.
Sgt. York proved his skills on the battlefields of France, where he distinguished himself as an exceptional soldier.
Sgt. York returned home to a hero’s welcome, where he was celebrated in his hometown of Pall Mall and throughout Tennessee. His story was made into a movie in 1941, starring Gary Cooper and Joan Leslie, further popularizing his legacy. He died in Nashville in 1964 at the age of 76. To this day, he remains one of the United States’ most famous war heroes.
Sgt. Alvin York’s incredible courage and bravery on the battlefields of World War I made him one of the most decorated soldiers in American military history. His legacy continues to this day, inspiring others with his story of courage and patriotism.
Joining the US Military and Heroics in WWI
The United States military has played an integral role in defending the nation since its inception, and World War I represented a significant example of this. However, despite the US’s later involvement in the war, many men signed up for service before any official declaration of participation as a matter of personal volition and patriotism. This was also true for Alvin York, who joined the 82nd Infantry Division of the US Army in 1917 despite having no formal military training or experience. Though his enlistment was initially met with resistance from his congregation due to their non-violent beliefs, he eventually won over his superiors with his bravery and determination.
York’s admirable heroism during WWI is widely documented and praised even today; on Oct. 8, 1918, he singlehandedly took out 32 German machine gun nests while simultaneously protecting seven American soldiers. His remarkable feat earned him the Medal of Honor and a Croix de Guerre from France. This shows that York epitomizes all heroism about joining the US Military during WWI – one man’s courage leading to victory against adversity.
York wrote on his diary:
“[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. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. 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.”
Enlisting with the 82nd Infantry Division
In 1917, Sgt. Alvin York enlisted in the United States Army as a private with the 82nd Infantry Division. York initially struggled to adjust to military life, having been born and raised in rural Tennessee with little formal education. Despite this, he proved himself an exceptionally talented marksman and quickly distinguished himself as an invaluable asset to the American war effort.
Sgt. York served in numerous battles during his service with the 82nd Infantry Division and eventually earned the rank of sergeant for his bravery and exceptional performance on the battlefields of France. He was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his “exceptionally meritorious service” in leading an attack on a German machine gun nest during a battle near Châtel-Chehéry in October 1918. His heroic efforts resulted in reclaiming 132 prisoners and 35 machine guns from enemy forces.
York’s actions were pivotal in ensuring that no more lives were lost, and after returning home, he was celebrated throughout America as a national hero ( History.com). His achievements have been documented extensively over time, so much so that he is often regarded as one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I (US Army). Today, York’s legacy lives on through his exemplary service record, and his dedication to protecting those who cannot protect themselves remains inspiring—over 100 years later.
Fighting On the Front Lines: The Battle of Argonne Forest
After training at Camp Gordon, Georgia, and Camp Upton, New York, he joined the 82nd Infantry Division in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I in late September 1918 (Kirchheimer, 2018). York was known for his superior marksmanship skills even before enlisting; however, during this conflict, he became a hero of the war effort.
As part of his training for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, York attended a specialist course on shooting from cover with French Hotchkiss machine guns. He demonstrated his skills and bravery during the offensive by capturing 132 Germans single-handedly over an hour on Oct. 8 (Smithsonian National Museum of American History 2020). His heroism earned him numerous awards, including a Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry beyond the call of duty.
After his heroic acts in France, Sgt. Alvin York returned home to Tennessee, where he used his newfound fame to advocate for veterans’ rights and disabled children. He founded a charitable organization—the Alvin C. York Foundation—and championed numerous causes throughout his life until he died in 1964 (Engelman & Herrick, 2014). Sgt. Alvin York remains an iconic figure from World War I due to his extraordinary acts of courage and devotion to service despite formidable odds.
Winning the Medal of Honor and Widespread Acclaim
His heroism defines Sgt. Alvin York’s legacy in WWI and the Medal of Honor were earned for his courageous actions, but his story of courage and patriotism began long before the war. Born in 1887 in rural Tennessee, he was an excellent marksman from a young age due to his upbringing as a hunter. He was also a devout Christian, joining the Church of Christ while still young (Kiernan, 2019). In 1917, Sgt. York enlisted in the United States Army and was deployed to France, where he fought with distinction on the battlefields of Argonne Forest (Howell, 2019).
On Oct. 8, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Sgt. York led a platoon of 17 men against German forces entrenched themselves on a hill (Yoshino & Davis, 2020). Despite being severely outnumbered, almost 20 to 1, Sgt. York used strategic maneuvering to effectively take out over 130 enemy soldiers using rifle fire and bayonets (Kiernan, 2019), resulting in at least 25 dead Germans and thirty-two taken prisoner (Howell, 2019). His bravery earned him the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism” (Yoshino & Davis, 2020), along with widespread acclaim from military personnel and civilians.
Alvin Cullum York’s parents, William and Mary York, raised eleven children on a small farm—six sons and five daughters—in a faith-filled home. As the third oldest child, Alvin had to help his father tend to the farm from a young age. However, despite his poverty, Alvin’s family was still able to provide him with a good upbringing. His mother taught all the children how to read and write, while his father instilled a strong sense of moral values that would stay with Alvin until his later years.
After Alvin began courting local girl Gracie Williams, he became more religious. After their marriage in 1915, they moved back to Pall Mall, where they held church services every Sunday at their home. Despite her poor health—Gracie herself suffered from several chronic illnesses—, she gave birth to eight children between 1916 and 1927: Andrew Jackson (1916-1969), William Thomas (1918-1976), Mary Elizabeth (1920-1996), Sam Davis (1922-1944), Raymond Albert (1924-2001), Aaron Loyd (1926-1977), Alberta Lois (1927-2002) and Jesse Gray (born 1927).
Although it was not easy raising eight kids on what little resources he had available, Alvin managed to keep his family together even after returning home from the war in 1919 with numerous medals for bravery and heroism and suffering from shell shock and near deafness due to combat conditions.
Nevertheless, he was determined to ensure his children received an education and became productive members despite their humble backgrounds. To do this, he took up carpentry work wherever he could find it—often out of town—and built houses for others, so they had enough money for school supplies for his kids.
Conclusion: Remembering Sgt. Alvin York’s Legacy
Sgt. York’s courage and valor during the Battle of Argonne Forest on Oct. 8, 1918, earned him international acclaim when he single-handedly captured 132 Germans after leading seven other soldiers into battle against a much larger enemy force (Stauffer). For his achievements that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious award given to US military personnel for their acts of personal bravery or meritorious service beyond that which they were duty-bound to perform. In addition to this status, Sgt. York also received several other awards, including multiple French decorations such as the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, 44 Distinguished Service Crosses, and eight Purple Hearts (“Alvin C. York”).
Sgt. Alvin York’s legacy lives on today through numerous monuments dedicated in his honor across France and America, including a 1942 film biopic starring Gary Cooper depicting his heroic actions at Argonne Forest (“Alvin C. York”). In addition, his story has been studied by generations who have been inspired by his message of courage and patriotism in times of war and peace alike, reminding us that even through difficult times, individuals can make an impactful difference in society without relying on wealth or power (Santoro). Truly a testament to what it means to be an American hero, we will continue to remember Sgt. Alvin York’s legacy for years to come.
York’s story is inspiring and a powerful reminder of how individuals can make an immense difference during times of conflict and international strife. Moreover, the tenacity and bravery which drove him are still being espoused by recruiters seeking new cadets looking to join up today, along with other values such as integrity and commitment that have long been emblematic of those who enlist in service. Then, Sgt. Alvin York is an iconic example of heroism associated with joining the US Military during WWI – one which will continue to live on through the present generations for decades to come.