Saving Sergeant York | HistoryNet MENU
Sergeant Alvin C. York in February 1919 at the scene of the firefight where he killed at least 20 Germans and forced the surrender of 132 others. (Alamy Stock Photo)

Saving Sergeant York

By Nancy Tappan
October 2018 • American History Magazine

[SCENE: Doughboys tramping in mud]

MOTORCYCLE COURIER:  HEY SARGE! York by himself captured 132 Germans!

SERGEANT:  GUY NAMED YORK! Captured 132 Heinies all by his lonesome!

BUDDY 1:  How’d he do it?

BUDDY 2:  Musta surrounded ’em!

BUDDY 3:  A whole division and a bunch of high officers!

BUDDY 4:  …How could one guy…

DOUGHBOY IN DUGOUT TO NONCOM SOAKING HIS FEET:  Say, Sarge, d’ya hear?

York captured the Kaiser!

This scene, from the hit 1941 Warner Bros. movie Sergeant York, summarizes American reactions to an exploit late in World War I in northern France that earned Alvin C. York the Medal of Honor. In the century since this reluctant soldier braved machine gun fire to pick off 20 or more foes, persuading 128 other German soldiers and four officers to surrender, the York saga has engendered pride and puzzlement. Did he really do it? By himself?

The media lionized York as a hell-raising Tennessee mountaineer who got religion, a conscientious objector who found in his faith a reason to fight. Some, even doughboys who fought beside him, called him a liar. In 1929 the German government tried to discredit York; in the 1970s, amid post-Vietnam malaise, iconoclasts derided the 1918 incident as morale-boosting propaganda.

In the 1990s, another American soldier, Douglas V. Mastriano, decided to test the truth of the York legend. Since seeing the movie as a boy, Mastriano has felt a fascination for Alvin York. During 30 years as an Army intelligence officer, including tours in Germany, service in the 1991 Gulf War, and later in Afghanistan, Mastriano combed archives, studied official maps he came to see were inaccurate, and organized excavations at the battle site, locating important artifacts and even the spots where York fought. Mastriano’s work substantiated much of the story.

“I tried to match up the American and German accounts and ended up narrowing the search area down to a 100-meter square,” said Mastriano, who recently retired from the Army as a colonel and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District. “The rest is history.”

Mastriano’s archaeological team pinpointed locations from which York fired shots that killed at least 20 Germans. The search, penetrating several feet of plant debris and topsoil, turned up cartridges from weapons like those York carried, scraps of American uniforms, and items belonging to German units and individual soldiers involved. “We’ve become so jaded,” said Mastriano, who in 2014 published Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. “If there are heroes out there we want to tear them down…I think it’s good not to accept everything as fact, but at the same time let’s not always look for reasons not to believe.”

Sergeant York, wearing his Medal of Honor and other decorations, arrives in Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 22, 1919. (Getty Images)

Alvin Cullum York was born December 13, 1887, in Fentress County, Tennessee. He grew up on his family’s small farm near the town of Pall Mall, seven miles from the Kentucky line. The Wolf River Valley was as hardscrabble as any in Appalachia, its hamlets isolated by rushing creeks and accessible only by mountain paths. Alvin, third of 11 children, worked in father William’s fields from age six, and helped his mother, Mary Brooks York, with chores. William York blacksmithed and hunted raccoon, fox, squirrel, and other small game. Alvin told a biographer he couldn’t remember not owning a weapon. At a young age he became a skilled hunter. Bullets and powder were costly, and Alvin remembered that his pa “threatened to muss me up right smart if I failed to bring down a squirrel with the first shot or hit a turkey in the body instead of the head.”

School met three months a year, between crops. Freckle- faced, red-haired Alvin finished third grade. He grew to be more than six feet tall and a hard-muscled 175 lb. As a youth he met pig-tailed Gracie Williams, 13 years his junior, and thought, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

Years later, in 1911, Alvin was 24 and the oldest son still at home when a mule kicked William York, who died of his injuries. While younger siblings ran the farm, Alvin took over the smithy; when the smithy burned down, he worked on railroad gangs and as a hired hand. His choicest job, road construction, paid $1.60 a day.

In the land of outlaw distilling, drinking was a given. Alvin frequented “blind tigers,” crude saloons that straddled the state line. These joints honored the letter of the law, serving Kentuckians on the Tennessee side of the room and vice versa. Alvin smoked, fought, played cards, and often won moonshine drinking contests. He also competed at shooting. He could hit a target with rifle or pistol standing, prone, or on horseback. From 40 yards, he could shoot off the head of a turkey trussed to a log.

Mary York worried about her son. As he left for an evening’s carouse, she would follow him to the front gate, begging him not to drink or fight. Staggering home, Alvin often found his mother waiting, praying for his safe return. Her devotion shamed him, as did the scorn of Gracie’s father. Frank Asbury Williams, a prominent, deeply religious farmer, declared that no “hell-raising no-account” would be courting his daughter. Gracie herself, while finding Alvin attractive, refused to get serious unless he cleaned up. At age 27, Alvin began to regret his wastrel ways. “I knowed deep down in my heart that it [wasn’t] worthwhile,” he wrote later.

Pall Mall shopkeeper Rosier Pile pastored the Church of Christ in Christian Union, whose members followed a strict code of righteousness and dutifulness; during the Civil War, the fundamentalist sect had decried the fighting. Alvin was drawn to the congregation, and Pastor Pile became the young man’s spiritual guide.

When the Great War started in 1914, generals still enshrined the frontal assault. Machine guns shredded that doctrine, slaying soldiers trying to cross no man’s land by the hundreds of thousands. Venturing under heavy fire from trenches festooned with coils of barbed wire, units measured forward progress in yards. The stalemate on the Western Front changed technology and tactics. Combatants developed huge artillery pieces. The Germans excelled at building underground bastions able to withstand the worst shelling. The kaiser’s men installed concrete pillboxes into which machine gun crews could scramble as Allied infantrymen began advancing. Both sides unleashed poison gas and strove to build better warplanes. Nonetheless, generals kept sending men over the top.

The war seemed far from Wolf River Valley and from Alvin York, now second elder of Pastor Pile’s church, where he led the singing and in Pile’s absence conducted the service. Financial woes were gnawing at York; he was behind in paying state real estate taxes on the farm in 1915-16. Gracie’s pa doubted he could support a wife. Still, Gracie and Alvin left one another notes in rail fences and when she brought in the cows he walked with her. In early 1917, Frank Williams relented and allowed the couple to pledge their troth.

The European conflict was as distant to most Americans as it was to York when President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917. With 128,000 regular troops and 182,000 National Guardsmen, the United States had the world’s 17th largest army, behind Portugal’s. American war materiél, tactics, and military leadership were all out of date. American Expeditionary Forces commander General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing had little use for tanks, airplanes, or newfangled tactics that had evolved in four years of combat across the Atlantic. Black Jack believed an American soldier with a rifle could overcome any enemy.

To staff the newly organized AEF the Army hastily drafted civilians into divisions often given minimal training before sailing to France, starting in June 1917. Pershing did not expect to be able to field a decisive combat force until the following summer. To restore depleted ranks and teach the Yanks how to survive and win in no-man’s-land, Britain and France pushed to assign newly arrived doughboys to their armies. Refusing these demands, Pershing insisted his boys would fight as an intact American army even if it meant borrowing Allied field pieces, rifles, and helmets.

Folks in Fentress County were deeply patriotic, but suspicious of conscription. Pastor Pile’s church had no formal doctrine of pacifism, but the sect’s historic resistance to war brought a crisis for Alvin, 30, when he got a draft notice in June 1917. “I believed in the Bible and [it] distinctly said, `THOU SHALT NOT KILL,’” he wrote later.

Pile urged Alvin to object to serving on grounds of conscience. Completing the registration form, which asked “Do you claim exemption from draft?” Alvin answered, “Yes, Don’t Want to Fight.” The county draft board twice rejected his petition to be ruled a conscientious objector; two appeals to the Middle Tennessee board failed. Shocked, Alvin thought of fleeing into the mountains, but on November 14, 1917, he reported for induction. At Camp Gordon, Georgia, he felt lost among the urban accents and unfamiliar attitudes of the Polish, Jewish, and Italian conscripts comprising G Company, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd “All American” Division, but he made the best of things. He was feeling more soldierly, but still had doubts about war. He sought the counsel of his company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, and battalion commander Major George E. Buxton. Buxton, a devout New Englander, sat up one night debating the Bible with York. When Alvin cited the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” Buxton countered with John 18.36: “For my kingdom is not of this world, but if my kingdom were of this world, so would my servants fight.” Buxton gave York a pass, suggesting he go home and think matters through.

Sergeant York portrays this experience by having Gary Cooper as Alvin climb to a ledge with his hound dog, his Bible, and an American history text. He sits a night and a day and another night, reading and asking for divine guidance. As the sun rises, revealing the valley below, a revelation comes: accept his duty in confidence that God will see him through. He returns to Camp Gordon, where the other fellows heartily welcome him.

In reality, York did accept the Army, but fellow soldiers, with one exception, did not accept him.

Apart from the equally pious Murray Savage, of East Bloomfield, New York, York had no close friends in G Company. Men like Bernard Early and William Cutting, whose real name was Otis B. Merrithew but who had enlisted under an assumed name, viewed the Tennessean with suspicion for voicing doubt about fighting. They also sneered at his preferring to study the Bible with Savage over whooping it up in taverns. In April 1918, after five months of slipshod training, the All-American Division sailed to England before making the short hop to France.

In May 1918, Pershing began to allow doughboys and Marines to fight under and learn from French and British commanders. At Belleau Wood on May 27,
at Cantigny on May 28, and in mid-July at Chateau-Thierry, Americans blooded themselves against the Boche; Chateau-Thierry helped reverse the war’s momentum in the Allies’ favor. On June 26, the All-Americans had filed into the trenches in the American sector of lines stretching from the Argonne Forest to the Vosges Mountains in Lorraine province,
a relatively quiet sector. York and Savage each were promoted to the rank of corporal.

On September 12, AEF forces, including the 82nd, conducted the war’s first entirely American attack, reducing a salient at St. Mihiel, southeast of Verdun. That day York’s 328th Infantry went over the top to attack Norroy, a small village. The Germans volleyed with mustard gas. Company G took casualties, with men falling to machine guns and others panicking and ripping off their gas masks. York later recalled having to wear his “pesky” mask for hours. 

In late September, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch ordered four lightning attacks in as many days near the Belgian border. Foch intended to overrun enemy-held rail arteries to strand German reserves, and to retake French coal and iron mines, starving enemy war industries. Foch gave the Americans the toughest assignment: On September 26, doughboys would attack north up the heavily defended Meuse River Valley and through the Argonne Forest to capture a rail hub at Mezieres, a few miles northwest of the strategically insignificant but symbolically important city of Sedan.

Foch’s Meuse-Argonne offensive began badly. Pershing ordered old-fashioned assaults straight into machine guns and artillery. Men fell in stacks. Snarled communications caused huge traffic jams. Still, the sheer volume of American troops, artillery pieces, ordnance, aircraft, trucks, rifles, and rations began to tell. By October 6, doughboys were advancing. The 82nd Division remained in reserve. On October 7, 1918, the 82nd got orders to join the fight. Enemy forces had encircled the First Battalion of the AEF’s 77th Division in the Argonne Forest. To relieve what would come to be called the “Lost Battalion,” the 328th Infantry was to attack across a triangular valley northwest of the village of Châtel Chéhéry. The aim was to draw off German units raining fire on the trapped Americans and capture a road and rail line supplying Germans on the east side of the Argonne. On October 7, the First Battalion of the 328th attacked Hill 223, a promontory northwest of Châtel Chéhéry. Against fierce opposition, the 328th held the east slope. The next morning, York’s Second Battalion was to crest the hill and attack across the valley.

The valley’s defenders were from the Second Landwehr Division, a national guard unit of men 35 and over from Württemberg in southwestern Germany. On October 7, three Landwehr regiments—the 120th, 122nd, and 125th—moved into positions on the northwest side of the valley. The new arrivals dug foxholes and arranged machine gun nests. First Lieutenant (Reserve) Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commander of the 120th’s 1st Battalion, set up a command post in a clearing behind one of the hills. Vollmer was fluent in  English; before the war, he had lived in Chicago, Illinois. On high ground to Vollmer’s left, Lieutenant Paul Lipp of the 125th positioned machine gunners. A friend of Vollmer, Lieutenant Fritz Endriss, led the 4th company of Vollmer’s battalion. Endriss spread his men on the right.

York’s 2nd Battalion was a little over a kilometer to the southeast. The Americans were to go over the top at 6:10 a.m., preceded by an artillery barrage. At Vollmer’s command

German officers—center, Vollmer, Thoma, and Lipp—pass American officers tallying prisoners taken by York (behind Vollmer, helmeted) and his fellow doughboys (University of Kentucky Press)

post, a small advance party from the 210th Prussian Reserve Infantry and the 7th Bavarian Sapper Company, commanded by Lieutenant Max Thoma, arrived. Vollmer took the Bavarians and Prussians forward to Endriss’s sector to fill a gap in the line.

At 6:10 a.m., the promised American barrage still had not begun. York’s battalion hurtled into the valley anyway. From the opposite hillsides, German machine gunners raked the attackers, killing or wounding half the Americans, including the lieutenant leading York’s and Savage’s platoon. Taking command, Sergeant Harry Parsons formed York, Savage, Cutting, and 13 others into a makeshift raiding party reporting to Early, an acting sergeant. Parsons ordered the men to flank the enemy and silence those machine guns.

As this was occurring, about 70 more Prussian reinforcements who had been marching all night arrived at Vollmer’s command post. The weary infantrymen shed their heavy ammunition belts, stacked their rifles, and sat to eat breakfast. The American barrage finally started, masking York and his comrades as they circled left through heavy underbrush. York was carrying an American-made Enfield .30-06 bolt action rifle and a Colt .45 automatic pistol. At a stream, the Americans surprised two Germans filling water cans. The pair fled, yelling “Die Amerikaner kommen!” York and cohort pursued the pair into the open, stumbling upon the seated, unarmed Prussians. The men eating threw up their hands, crying “Kamerad,” the word for surrender. The Americans began organizing their prisoners.

At the front line, Vollmer got word that another 70 Prussians had arrived at his command post. He was headed there when he heard shouts. Drawing his pistol, Vollmer ran for the command post, where his men were milling, some with hands raised. At gunpoint, Vollmer ordered his men to take up arms. Suddenly a big freckled redhead  wearing a British-style helmet surprised Vollmer by demanding that he surrender.

The interloper was Corporal Alvin York.

Up the hill, Lipp and his machine gunners, hearing a ruckus, spotted Allied helmets below. The Germans moved their gun and fired into the scrum. Machine gun rounds killed Murray Savage and five other Americans and badly wounded Early, Cutting, and one other doughboy. Bullets struck several captured Germans. York was now the only noncommissioned American officer on his feet. Vollmer and other prisoners began yelling, “Don’t shoot, there are Germans here!” Trying to sort friend from foe, the gunners on the hill stopped firing. Alone, York darted up the hillside. Fellow Americans provided covering fire. At a “V” formed by two sunken roads, York dove flat, aimed his Enfield at the nest, and waited. Each time a machine gunner or rifleman on the crest raised his head, York picked the man off. He expended all the cartridges he could reach safely; 19 Germans died. The guns on that part of the ridge went quiet. As York was returning to the crowd scene in the clearing, Endriss, on the opposite slope, ordered his men to fix bayonets.

With about half his squad following, Endriss charged York, who drew his .45. Below, American Private Percy Beardsley opened fire on the charging Germans, first with his Chauchat machine gun and, when the Chauchat jammed, with a .45 pistol. As he would have at home with a turkey flock, York shot his attackers back to front, one by one. Endriss, the last of the six Germans York shot, screamed as he went down. Seeing his friend fall, Vollmer stood. He said to York, “English?”

“No, not English.”

“What?”

“American.”

“Good Lord!” Vollmer said. “If you won’t shoot anymore, I will make them give up.”

York agreed. With a whistle, Vollmer signaled his fellow Germans to surrender. The Americans lined up the prisoners and, with Vollmer in the lead, began to shepherd the group toward the American lines. York walked at Vollmer’s back, jamming his pistol into the German officer’s ribs. Suddenly Thoma and his Bavarians appeared, aiming rifles. With the muzzle of his .45, York prodded Vollmer.

“You must surrender!” Vollmer told Thoma.

“I will not let them capture me.”

“It is useless,” Vollmer said. “We are surrounded!”

“I will do so on your responsibility,” Thoma said.

“I take all responsibility.”

Reaching the American sector with the POWs, the squad members marched their captives past a lieutenant who counted 132 prisoners. Within 48 hours, Endriss was dead. Vollmer ended the war in a prison camp.

Later on October 8, York’s regiment captured the German supply road and rail line. On October 9, German forces withdrew from the Argonne. York asked for and got permission to revisit the battle site to search for living casualties. He found none. In the next three weeks, York saw additional action—an exploding shell threw him into the air but did him no harm. On October 31, another division relieved the 82nd.

On November 3, York made sergeant. He was on leave when he learned of the armistice. He ached to go home, but his superiors kept him traveling the former combat zone to give inspirational speeches. One day York found himself careening across the countryside in a motorcycle sidecar. On November 30, the Army awarded York the Distinguished Service Cross. His captain nominated him for the Medal of Honor. Such nominations occasion deep scrutiny. York’s October 8 actions seemed so extraordinary that investigators bore down harder than usual, in February 1919 bringing York to the battlefield, where he posed for a photograph at one of the critical locations. Investigators collected affidavits from firefight survivors as well from their superiors, including Captain Bertram Cox, the only officer to visit the scene the day of the battle. York’s nomination went all the way to
President Woodrow Wilson’s desk. Finally, on April 18, 1919, 82nd Division commander Major General George Duncan pinned the Medal of Honor on York’s chest. Awards for valor from France, Italy, and Montenegro followed. The million-reader weekly Saturday Evening Post in its April 26, 1919, issue, published
journalist George Pattullo’s cover story, “The Second Elder Gives Battle,” the first account in the national press of events in the Argonne on October 8, 1919. The ballyhoo had begun.

So had the criticism. Sergeant Bernard Early and Corporal William Cutting each complained to army investigators that he had been more instrumental in the German surrender than York. Alvin York returned stateside May 22, 1919, honored with a New York ticker tape parade and a standing ovation from the U.S. House of Representatives. When Alvin finally reached Pall Mall, he and Gracie went for a walk. They returned ready to wed. Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts and Pastor Pile jointly performed the ceremony on June 7, 1919, in Pall Mall. Offers to buy York’s story multiplied, but even though the former sergeant wanted to raise money to build a school for mountain children, he declined. The Yorks did accept a Tennessee Rotary Club offer to buy the couple a farm but the Rotarians did not come through. Embarrassing publicity brought in private donations that covered the mortgage. In 1928 Doubleday published Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary.

In 1927, York opened tuition-free Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute in Jamestown, Tennessee. He ran the school until 1936, when local power brokers, saying he lacked the necessary background, pushed him out.

Paul Vollmer returned to Ulm and postal work. In 1929, stung by the praise heaped on York, the German National Archive undertook to disprove his story, soliciting from Vollmer and other soldiers who had
surrendered to York testimony on the episode to be compiled into an official report (see “Look Back in Anger,” below).

The German veterans’ affidavits reflected disbelief and defiance. German witnesses swore that not 17, but as many as 100 Americans had overcome them. The German report included a topographical map eventually found to be far more accurate than one U.S. Army officers imagined for a 1929 War College exposition. At that event, soldiers reenacted York’s exploit and Army brass awarded Bernard Early a Distinguished Service Cross for having led the squad. William Cutting, back to being Otis Merrithew, was bucking for a Silver Star. He buttonholed ex-sergeant Harry Parsons seeking his endorsement. Parsons refused.

“It was York’s party,” Parsons told Merrithew.

During the 1930s, York hired hands to work his farm so he could travel raising money for his school. Though still inclined to pacifism, in 1937 he declared publicly that the United States would have to fight Germany and Japan. In 1940, he finally signed a movie deal with Warner.

Director Howard Hawkes would cast his story as a warning parable to foster patriotism and preparedness. York agreed to accept $50,000 and 2 percent of the gross.

In exchange for releases to portray them on screen, the production company at first offered 34 former doughboys as little as $5. That sum rose to $250 per man when York critic Otis Merrithew agitated fellow veterans to demand more money. In letters to studio officials, Merrithew swore that after he and Early were wounded, Early assigned command of the improvised detachment to him, not York. Sergeant York did boffo box office, and, as York, Gary Cooper won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Actor.

Gary Cooper with Alvin York. The actor’s portrayal of the hero won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Actor. (Alamy Stock Photo)

During World War II, York, in his mid-50s and in poor health, made patriotic speeches and raised funds. He even volunteered to re-enlist, an offer the Army declined. In 1951, the Internal Revenue Service began hounding the hero, claiming he owed taxes on movie royalties and funds raised for his school. The matter dragged on until House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) and other allies raised money to help the aged warrior. Under pressure, the IRS settled. Alvin York was 76 when he died on September 2, 1964. The next year, Merrithew was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry on October 8, 1918. He died in 1977.

Douglas V. Mastriano

With no accurate maps and the Châtel Chéhéry topography undergoing natural change, the York firefight’s exact location faded from collective memory. In the 1990s, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Taylor Beattie and Major Ronald Bowman of the Army War College, employing field analytical techniques and working primarily from York’s diary, made an educated guess as to the spot. Their analysis, published internally by the War College, received little public notice.

Douglas Mastriano began his archival research in the 1990s while stationed in Germany. Fluent in that language, he was able to delve deeply into records that had survived World War II.

At the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Mastriano located the 1929 German attempt to debunk York. He took special note of the accompanying map, which marked with an X the German position in the October 8, 1918, battle. The X was within 10 yards of where Captain Cox, on the day of the firefight, had said the Germans had been. The mark on the German report’s map also was close to where York had stood to have his picture taken in February 1919.

Mastriano began his field research in France in 2002. By 2006, his team had isolated a grid small enough to bring in metal detectors. Beneath layers of loam and leaves, technicians located cartridge cases from the types of pistol and rifle that York had used. The search also uncovered bits of two doughboy’s tunics, likely from men who were killed on October 8, 1918, as well as the oval identification disks and personal effects of a soldier with the 125th Landwehr Infantry—evidence that a machine gun had been emplaced as York had reported—and buttons and other artifacts.

The overall effect was to confirm the long-ago presence of the 120th Landwehr Infantry and the 210th Prussian Reserve. 

Among Mastriano’s most significant findings were spent .30-06 rifle cartridges fitting Enfields like the one York used and in line with York’s testimony about where and how many shots he fired. Researchers found the “V” between the two sunken roads where York shielded himself while firing at Lieutenant Paul Lipp’s company. The recovery of 46 spent .30-06 casings was consonant with York’s statement that during the engagement he fired all 50 rounds in his front ammunition pouches before switching to his .45 pistol. Searchers found another 24 spent .45-caliber pistol cartridges at positions matching York’s testimony about firing, along with Private Percy Beardsley, at Lieutenant Fritz Endriss and his men. Recovery of German ammunition belts and other artifacts corroborated York’s story that many enemy soldiers surrendered without a fight.

Author Mastriano concluded that York had
not acted singlehandedly. “Clearly, York was the man of the hour, but we found American .30-caliber cartridges scattered about the site, indicating that several doughboys fired in support of York,” the former intelligence officer said.

In 1965, when the Army awarded Otis Merrithew a Silver Star for his part in the Argonne action, the old soldier, who had spent decades denigrating Alvin York and claiming credit for himself, surprised listeners.

“There was one guy in my outfit who was a conscientious objector—but once he was in the thick of battle, he fought like a true American and almost captured the whole damned German army single-handed,” Otis Merrithew said. “His name was Alvin York and he was a hero.”

_____

“The details of Sergeant York’s exploit were created by the imagination of a fertile mind. Probably the product of a typical American megalomania.”—First Lieutenant (Reserve) Paul Jürgen Vollmer

This statement appeared in Die Entstehung von Kriegslegenden Feststellungen über die angebliche Heldentat des amerikanischen Sergeanten York am 8.10.18. That official German government report“The Origin of War Legends: An Investigation of the Alleged Feat of Sergeant York, October 8, 1918”— was researched and written in 1929 by a military historian as a retort to a Swedish newspaper story lionizing Alvin York.

The Hemmets Journal article had outraged a German citizen, who complained to the War Ministry. The ministry directed the National Archive to seek testimony from men present at the York incident. The report, meant to debunk the York story and restore German honor, illuminates the persistent bitterness among Germany’s military classes regarding the York saga.

The 27-page report’s author, a military historian identified only as “Otto,” said his brief had been to pin down the origins of the “York legend.” Otto likely was Otto Korfes, Ph.D., who had ended World War I with the Magdeburg-based Seventh Prussian Infantry Division. Between 1920 and 1937, Korfes was attached to the German National Archive at Potsdam as a military historian. During World War II, Korfes commanded the 295th Infantry Division. He was captured at Stalingrad.

Otto researched and wrote the report with aid from Lieutenant Colonel Carl H. Müller, a U.S. Army historian. Müller spent 1928-32 working in Potsdam under a deal allowing the former combatants to study one another’s wartime records.

In tones of chagrin, outrage, and denial, witness after German witness scorned the York story as fiction, even fantasy. In his text, Otto endorses these diatribes by likening American accounts of the incident to martial fables familiar to German readers. In such legends, fighting men risk all to grasp falling flags and rally comrades to victory or endanger life and limb to blow up an enemy fortification. “War legends usually are based on actual events, the facts of which are greatly embellished by the imagination of the person involved, or of the latter’s contemporaries, or of later generations,” Otto wrote.

Müller asked Otto for a copy for the U.S. Army War College. With a carbon, Otto sent a letter explaining that Germany was shelving his conclusions. “We are not interested in releasing to the Press anything concerning this affair,” Otto wrote. “If the newspapers should print another article, however, which, in connection with the alleged feat of Sergeant York, might have the tendency of depreciating the name of the German army…we will immediately disprove the article with the aid of the material at hand…”

Otto asked Müller to step in on Germany’s behalf should the American media hype the York story. “We would appreciate very much your seeing that similar steps be taken in the United States, in the event that this case receives further notice,” the German historian wrote to his former collaborator. “Any publication on our part is to serve merely as a defense against unjustified accusations.”

In 1936, the War College had Otto’s report translated into English. The German original probably was destroyed in a 1944 Allied bombing raid on Potsdam. For decades, the American translation languished classified and unread at the U.S. National Archives, first in downtown Washington, and later at College Park, Maryland.

In 1985, David D. Lee referenced Otto’s report in Sergeant York: An American Hero. The 1929 German affidavits do not disprove York’s story, Lee noted.

Otto’s report is “flawed at its base,” author Douglas Mastriano said in Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. “The speed, shock, and surprise [of York’s attack] caught both sides off guard,” Mastriano wrote. “The Germans had trouble believing that so few Americans could capture so many of their soldiers…and launched an effort to script a rebuttal. The premise was that it was impossible for this to happen to German soldiers…”

A passage in the 1929 German testimony illuminates the sorry state of the 210th Prussian Reserve Infantry, whose members surrendered en masse to York’s squad in the Argonne on October 8, 1918.

“The fighting value of the men in the trenches had sunk very low,” the commander of a neighboring unit, the 11th Company of the 212th Prussian Reserve Infantry said. “Our men simply would no longer go over the top.”

—Nancy Tappan

, , , , , , , , ,



Sponsored Content: