Des Moines County Republicans
This may not be a stellar year in your life, but it is the one hundredth anniversary of the “Great War” as World War One is referred to almost universally.
Yes, a hundred years already and most folks don’t know a lot about that conflict and it’s heroes, one of which is a fellow by the name of Sgt. Alvin C. York.
I know it is hard to imagine, especially from our current crop of offspring, that a war this old was fought without any electronic gadgets, not a one. It was fought with old fashioned shoe leather and a lot of close combat with rifles, and other hand weapons. No, not even one guided bomb using GPS technology.
So, the body of our hero in this story, the aforementioned Sgt. York, can be found in a small cemetery in Tennessee’s Wolf River Valley, not far from his birthplace.
Occasionally, a visitor will ask why he wasn’t laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, among the nation’s most honored veterans. Certainly he could have been. For his actions in combat, York received the Medal of Honor and numerous other awards, and was hailed by General John Pershing as “the greatest civilian soldier” of the Great War.
But the red-haired, 6-foot sharpshooter, who spent his entire life in this valley but for 18 months in uniform, was adamant he be buried among his people. “He said, ‘When the rapture happens, I want to wake up and see the hills of Tennessee,’” says Deborah York, his great-granddaughter and director of the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.
Up to his death in 1964, York was tight-lipped about his battlefield exploits. He preferred to talk about the interest that gripped him upon his return from Europe: education. There was a big world outside Fentress County, and mountain boys and girls deserved opportunities for learning he never had. York, a member of the American Legion’s founding generation, wanted to give them those opportunities.
In these parts, York’s greatest legacy isn’t his war record, but what he did after the war: raising money to build a school that still operates today, digging the foundation himself, and mortgaging his farm twice to buy busses, hire drivers and even pay teachers’ salaries. If he used his celebrity, it was to help bring improved education , employment and roads to the Upper Cumberland.
Until recently, the park focused on the York Americans knew less well – the one who wed Gracie Williams and raised seven children with her, battled local authorities to open the York Institute, and ran a general store and grist mill. Visitors to the area toured the family home, talked with relatives and saw other sites connected to York’s post-war life.
And the young folks of today don’t know how on October 8, 1918, York and 16 other soldiers made their way behind enemy lines to silence German machine guns holding up their advance to capture a rail line north of Chatel-Chehery. How they took a few prisoners before German gunners above them opened fire, killing six – including York’s best friend, Cpl. Murray Savage – and wounding three. How York picked off the Germans one by one, then fought off a bayonet charge by drawing his pistol and dropping six others. How a German officer finally heeded York’s calls to surrender, and he and his surviving comrades marched 132 prisoners to battalion headquarters.
The legend that York accomplished all this singlehandedly – killing more than 20 Germans, wiping out 35 machine gun nests – lives on, but he always insisted he didn’t act alone. “I was one of the 17 who did the job,” he said later. “Any one of the other boys could have done the same thing I did if fate had put them in my place.”
Today Deborah York preserves and promotes her great-grandfather’s legacy through the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.
This is a partial repost of the original feature in the April 2017 American Legion Magazine written by Matt Grill who is managing editor of the magazine. You can find the complete story on www.legion.org and/or visit the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park’s website and Facebook page: www.facebook.com/sgtalvincyorkstatepark and learn more about efforts to preserve and restore the original York Institute building: www.facebook.com/sgtyorkfoundation.
(Richard Goughnour is a prize winning editorial writer and former newspaper editorial writing contest judge in all the Midwestern States. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)