On this day in 1918, United States Corporal Alvin C. York reportedly kills over 20 German soldiers and captures an additional 132 at the head of a small detachment in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France. The exploits later earned York the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Born in 1887 in a log cabin near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, York was the third of 11 children in a family supported by subsistence farming and hunting. After experiencing a religious conversion, he became a fundamentalist Christian around 1915. Two years later, when the United States entered World War I, York was drafted into the U.S. Army. After being denied conscientious-objector status, York enlisted in the 82nd Infantry Division and in May 1918 arrived in France for active duty on the Western Front. He served in the successful Saint-Mihiel offensive in September of that year, was promoted to corporal and given command of his own squadron.
The events of October 8, 1918, took place as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive—what was to be the final Allied push against German forces on the Western Front during World War I. York and his battalion were given the task of seizing German-held positions across a valley; after encountering difficulties, the small group of soldiers—numbering some 17 men—were fired upon by a German machine-gun nest at the top of a nearby hill. The gunners cut down nine men, including a superior officer, leaving York in charge of the squadron.
As York wrote in his diary of his subsequent actions: “[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.”
Several other American soldiers followed York’s lead and began firing; as they drew closer to the machine-gun nest, the German commander—thinking he had underestimated the size of the enemy squadron—surrendered his garrison of some 90 men. On the way back to the Allied lines, York and his squad took more prisoners, for a total of 132. Though Alvin York consistently played down his accomplishments of that day, he was given credit for killing more than 20 German soldiers. Promoted to the rank of sergeant, he remained on the front lines until November 1, 10 days before the armistice. In April 1919, York was awarded the highest American military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lauded by The New York Times as “the war’s biggest hero” and by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), as “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I, York went on to found a school for underprivileged children, the York Industrial Institute (now Alvin C. York Institute), in rural Tennessee. In 1941, his heroism became the basis for a movie, Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Upon York’s death in 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called him “a symbol of American courage and sacrifice” who epitomized “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”