Alvin C. York
Alvin York was born in a two room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee. He was the third of eleven children. When his father died in November 1911, Alvin helped his mother in raising his younger siblings. York first worked in Harriman, Tennessee, first in railroad construction and then as a logger.
On June 5, 1917, at the age of 29, Alvin York registered for the draft as all men between 21 and 31 years of age were required to do on that day. When he registered for the draft, he answered the question "Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?" by writing "Yes. Don't Want To Fight."
When his initial claim for conscientious objector status was denied, he appealed. In World War I, conscientious objector status did not exempt one from military duty. Such individuals could still be drafted and were given assignments that did not conflict with their anti-war principles. In November 1917, while York's application was considered, he was drafted and began his army service at Camp Gordon in Georgia.
From the day he registered for the draft until he returned from the war on May 29, 1919, York kept a diary of his activities. In his diary, York wrote that he refused to sign documents provided by his pastor seeking a discharge from the Army on religious grounds and refused to sign similar documents provided by his mother asserting a claim of exemption as the sole support of his mother and siblings. He also disclaimed ever having been a conscientious objector.
York was drafted into the United States Army and served in Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Deeply troubled by the conflict between his pacifism and his training for war, he spoke at length with his company commander, Captain Danforth and his battalion commander, Major Buxton. Citing Biblical passages about violence ("He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one." "Render unto Caesar..." "...if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight."), Danforth and Buxton persuaded York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. Granted a 10-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe, as committed to his new mission as he had been to pacifism.
His battalion was sent to capture German positions near Hill 223. The German machine guns were well hidden on the heights overlooking the battalion's position. Under the command of Sergeant Early, four non-commissioned officers, including recently promoted Cpl. York, and thirteen privates were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the machine guns. The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. Early's men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans and wounding three others. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining U.S. soldiers. As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.
During the assault, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him with fixed bayonets. York had fired all the rounds in his M1917 Enfield rifle, but drew his .45 Colt automatic pistol and shot all six soldiers before they could reach him. German First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted. By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.
York was promptly promoted to Sergeant, and received the Distinguished Service Cross. A few months later, a thorough investigation resulted in an upgrade of his Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor, which was presented to York by the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. The French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. Italy awarded him its Croce di Guerra al Merito and Montenegro its War Medal. He eventually received nearly 50 decorations.
Click here to read Sergeant York's Medal of Honor citation.