Alvin York (1887-1964) was raised in the tiny impoverished rural village of Pall Mall, in northeastern Tennessee. The red-haired, freckle-faced boy hunted fox, turkey and other game with his father in nearby hill country and received only a smattering of schooling.
As a shoeless teenager, he gained a reputation for being an out-of-control, wild partygoer. York frequented shabby saloons with “Kentucky-Tennessee borders” painted on their floors because it was legal to drink only in Kentucky; he became known for singlehandedly glugging down a quart of moonshine in no time.
However, that all changed one day when a high-powered, persuasive evangelist came to Pall Mall and brought York to Jesus. The young carouser converted to fundamentalist Christianity, gave up drinking, smoking, cursing, and fighting and became an elder in the Church of Christ in Christian Union.
As a born-again Christian, York believed he should follow the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” so when President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1917, he sought conscientious objector status. After applying and being denied multiple times, this zealous Christian finally decided it must be “God's will” that he should join the military.
York became a private in Company G, Second Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd “All American” Division of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. He was shipped off to battle in northeastern France, more than 4000 miles away from home.
On October 8th, 1918, York was among a patrol of 17 men ordered to take out a German machine-gun placement that was deterring his regiment’s advance in the Argonne Forest. The patrol moved behind enemy lines and surprised a German unit hidden in a ravine preparing to attack. The Germans surrendered but, as the doughboys were lining up their prisoners to march back to the allied side, German machine-gunners fired from a nearby hilltop, killed six Americans and wounded three more. York, who was by then a corporal and the highest-ranking unwounded soldier, immediately took charge and, as Nelson summarizes, “singlehandedly killed two dozen Germans, captured 132 more, and nabbed thirty-five machine guns to boot.”
York’s valor went unnoticed until he was the subject of a cover article in the April 26, 1919 edition of the “Saturday Evening Post.” Soon York received the U.S. Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre for his heroic actions. The hero also received many lucrative offers to endorse products and requests to appear in movies and onstage but he declined them all. He returned to northeastern Tennessee where he got married and settled down.
York spent his remaining years trying to eke out a living and help his impoverished community. His efforts to develop an excellent school for the local children and later a religious academy both failed. People gathered funds to purchase a farm for him, but he was incapable of financially managing it. Many of his platoon mates resented the media coverage he received. He died at the Nashville VA Hospital on September 2, 1964.
Nelson's biography reads like an action novel during York’s deployment in France. In comparison, Nelson’s descriptions of York’s remaining years in Pall Mall and his account of the other soldiers in the patrol are interesting but anticlimactic. The author’s research debunks much of the information portrayed in the 1941 movie “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper. Military historians will appreciate reading this well-researched, detailed saga of Alvin York.
“The York Patrol” is 288 pages long with an additional 16-page black and white photo insert. There is an extensive list of sources, a bibliography, and a thorough index. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, is the publisher.
About the Author: James Carl Nelson is the author of four histories of the U.S. experience in World War I. He is a former staff writer for the “Miami Herald.”