Alvin York, (1887–1964)

Originally a conscientious objector, the humble and pious Alvin York was the most famous American doughboy (soldier) of World War I. His exploits as a marksman were legendary and were further popularized by a noted 1940 movie. But true to his religious leanings, York shunned wealth and fame, led a life of modesty, and died in obscurity. (Library of Congress)

Alvin York was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, one of 11 children from a poverty-stricken family. Forced to hunt and provide food at an early age, he became a superb marksman. York was also much given to drinking, gambling, and fighting until 1911, when he underwent a religious conversion and joined the Church of Christ and Christian Union. As a committed pacifist, York applied for conscientious objector status in 1917, which was denied by the draft board, and he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He made clear to superiors his unease about fighting in combat. And his battalion commander, Major George E. Buxton, a Bible scholar, debated chapter and verse with him for three days as to war and the moral obligations it posed to men of conscience. York agonized but sided with his superior and decided to fight. He arrived in France as a corporal and part of G Company, 328th U.S. Infantry, 82nd Division, and fought in the Argonne Forest. On October 8, 1918, York led 17 men that captured a small enemy detachment, then came under fire from several emplacements. York immediately crept forward to engage the enemy and single-handedly shot down 17 enemy gunners. When the Germans realized their opponent was a single American, seven soldiers rushed him until York fired his pistol and expertly shot them down. A captive German major pleaded with him to stop; then York and his men rounded up 132 prisoners and marched them back to battalion headquarters. General John J. Pershing subsequently lauded York as “the greatest civilian soldier of the war.” Consequently he received a Congressional Medal of Honor and 50 other decorations, but York returned to Tennessee and lived the rest of his life in semi-seclusion. He allowed his biography to be published in 1928 and also advised the film Sergeant York (1940), starring Gary Cooper, but continually gave away any money accruing from his celebrity. York died in near-poverty at Nashville on December 2, 1964, a modest American hero.

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