Alvin C. York, the man, and Sergeant York, the legend from the movie starring Gary Cooper, were quite similar in many ways.
He had once been a conscientious objector who had hardly any schooling; he was a die hard individualist from the isolated mountains of east Tennessee who had trouble taking orders from anyone; and he became the most honored and best-known citizen-soldier in the American army in World War I. He was played by Gary Cooper in the movie version of his life. He was Alvin C. York.
York (1887-1964) grew up on a small spread in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River near the hamlet of Pall Mall, in Fentress County, Tennessee. Higher up lay Jamestown (dubbed Jimtown by the natives), the county seat. In Jamestown, Mark Twain’s parents grew up and married; Twain himself was conceived in Fentress County, though his parents moved to Missouri before he was born. This section of east Tennessee, not far from the Kentucky border, was spared Civil War battles, but it did suffer from marauders and bush whackers. The region was officially on the Northern side-both York grand fathers served as Union soldiers–but the populace of Fentress County argued both ways. As in other matters, they relished being contrary.
Although the spirit of Mark Twain lingers in Fentress County, York him self seems to have stepped out of the fervid imagination of a New Englander, the late Al Capp, who created the comic-strip hero Li’l Abner. In his youth, York was rangy, broad-shouldered, and seemingly endowed with a mystical ability to walk unscathed through any calamity. He was the prototypical Southern mountaineer–not a hillbilly. Mountaineers do not like to be called by that epithet (unless they do it themselves). I know; I am one. I come from upper east Tennessee, and I have known an Alvin York or two. (Actually, I once encountered the Alvin York at some gathering at the University of Tennessee in the late 1940s; no longer thin, with a substantial heft and apple cheeks, he bore his fame with a sly chuckle, a little uncomfortable.) Where I come from, males were taught from the cradle on to engage in roughhouse and blood-causing sports, never to back down from a fight, and to bond to the death with those who carried your blood and spoke with your accent. Loyalty and perseverance were two much-loved traits.
It was beautiful beyond belief in the hills of east Tennessee, weather and scenery alike, and you took it for granted that God looked down kindly on you. Some unfortunate by-products, though, sometimes came in the form of pigheadedness to an extreme, a hesitancy to accept any help, and a tendency to escape life’s complexity through either the spirits of the bottle or the spirit of the Lord.
Alvin York never went past the third grade, in a school that used split logs as desks and held classes for only the three months a year after the crops were brought in. York was third in a family of 11 children, born, like Lincoln, a little over a hundred miles north in Kentucky, in a one-room log cabin. Alvin’s father, William, eked out a living as a blacksmith and from what a 75-acre farm produced. His mother, Mary, took in neighbors’ laundry. Alvin went to work before he was six, hoeing corn and doing household chores. In summer he went barefoot, and in winter he wore brass-toed brogans, made by his father, that in his words “took the hide off my heels.” It was a tough life, made even harder when York’s father died in November 1911. Alvin, at age 24, the oldest son still at home, became the man of the house, in charge of caring for his mother and younger siblings. He stood six feet tall, large for a man back then. He worked his father’s smithy, until a chance fire destroyed it. He then hired out as a day laborer, his best job being on a construction crew that built U.S. Route 127 through Fentress County. His pay: $1.60 per backbreaking day.
York sought release in the usual. He reveled in moonshine, card playing, and fights. He was a crack shot from early on, using a homemade muzzle loader–or hog rifle, as it was called in the mountains. He usually grabbed the prize in shooting matches, which had been around since frontier days, and, with each shooter throwing in a quarter or so to compete, he raked in pots that were known to reach as much as $200–what would take him about half a year to make on the road crew. An other version featured a turkey tied be hind a log, with only its head exposed. The shooter who took off the bird’s bobbing head took home the meat. This lively type of contest was prominently shown in the movie about his life.
York’s drinking, carousing, and general hell-raising came to an end when he went through a religious conversion to a fundamentalist Christian faith. The phenomenon of “being saved” is well known in that land. He had always gone to church, loving to blast out hymns in his strong tenor, but attending a revival, led by a fiery visiting evangelist, did the final job. York renounced his wicked ways and joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. His court ship of a neighbor girl, Gracie Williams, influenced him to change his rowdy ways, too. She came from a large family and had a similar upbringing. He was 13 years older, and he claimed that he picked her as his future bride the moment he saw her in a cradle a few days after her birth. Their marriage after World War I was, by all accounts, a happy and enduring one.
His conversion, however, did not make his soldiering in the war run smoothly. At first he claimed exemption from the draft because of his religious beliefs, but he was turned down after four appeals. It was unusual that the minister of his church, Pastor Rosier Pile, was head of the local draft board, too. York was drafted into the army reluctantly, to put it mildly, and initially he had grave doubts that, as a devout Christian, he could ever kill another soul. He expressed his concern to his company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, a Harvard-educated Georgian, who immediately took the distraught York to the battalion commander, Major George Edward Buxton, a New Englander who was a devout Christian himself. It was not the ordinary military response to a complaint from the ranks, but Buxton’s knowledge of Scripture caused York to rethink his pacifist position. Buxton gave York a 10-day pass to go home and think things over. At the end, Buxton said, if York was still convinced that the words of Jesus forbade his fighting, then Buxton would give him a noncombat assignment. York went home, climbed a mountain, and prayed all night for guidance. He came down the next day convinced that he should fight, and that no harm would come to him; the Lord had told him so. He was so taken with Major Buxton that he later named a son after him.
York’s outfit, the 82nd Division, landed in Liverpool, England on May 16, 1918, and was in Le Havre, France, five days later. The soldiers’ first order of business was to turn in their Spring fields for 1917 British Enfields that had a 10-shot magazine and a caliber of .303 inches. York hated to part with his trusted five-shot Springfield, but he recognized the worth of the Enfield. After some final training, the 82nd took its place on the Western Front in late June, along the long quiet Saint-Mihiel salient, which jutted 200 square miles deep into the Allied line. At the end of the summer, the 82nd took part in the five-day push that eliminated the salient. On September 12, York’s Company G–in which he was a squad leader–went over the top to help take the village of Norroy, on the left bank of the Moselle River. The assault was successful, but the four days of heavy fighting passed in a blur for York. The Germans struck with mustard gas, causing him to don a hated gas mask for hours on end. He saw fellow soldiers go berserk under pressure, tearing off their masks and gulping in the fatal brew. He saw some Americans lying dead and mutilated, and others whimpering in pain. He experienced the full horror of war, but he believed in his cause, and he kept trusting in the Lord.
He was carrying on as a squad leader without much distinction. “I [was supposed to] lead the squad,” he wrote in his 1928 autobiography. “I kinder think they almost led me.” Then, on October 8, he became something else, something irrevocable. He became an American hero. It happened in the Argonne, whose terrain, with its steep, wooded hills and deep gullies, resembled the Tennessee hills that York had just come from.
Here is what happened, as best we know it: Corporal York’s 164th Infantry Brigade, 82nd Division, had been chosen in early October to assault the high ground along the northeast corner of the Argonne. On October 6, the brigade slogged toward its objective in what had become a given of this war, of so many wars really–mud. In the late afternoon, a cold, steady rain fell. The miserably drenched troops slid and groped their way forward, pulling their equipment, while enemy fire shattered the air and raked the ground around them. When darkness fell, they forded the swollen Aire River, the last obstacle between them and the Argonne. At first light on October 7, as a blanket of fog covered their position, they moved out to attack. The 164th had two goals: to take Hill 223, to the west of the village of Chatel-Chehery in the open country along the Aire valley; and to drive about two miles farther and take the Decauville Railroad, a north-south German supply line. By nightfall, Hill 223 had been taken. (A side benefit to this successful advance was that the Germans surrounding the trapped “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne, a few miles to the west, were forced to retreat; the next afternoon, the small number of American survivors stole to safety.)
York had not been in the fight to take Hill 223. He and the rest of the 2nd Bat talion of the 328th Infantry Regiment had spent October 7 hunkered down west of Chatel-Chehery, watching the 1st Battalion do the job. Before first light the next day, however, York’s 2nd Battalion was creeping up to Hill 223, preparing to move on to the Decauville Railroad. The eternal drizzle fell. More discomforting, German shells burst above and poison gas settled over them. Sniper fire popped unexpectedly, and now and then came the clatter of ma chine guns, for Hill 223 had not completely become a safe haven. It was free enough, though, for Captain Danforth of Company G to give orders to his men, one of whom was York: two platoons were to attack, with the other two used as support. York led a support squad, on the left, under the command of Sergeant Harry M. Parsons. When the whistle blew, the 2nd Battalion started down Hill 223 to cross a valley to where the enemy waited 500 yards away.
The 2nd Landwehr (Territorial) Divi sion, comprising Württembergers from the uplands of southern Germany, had held positions in the Argonne since 1914: when they were not being used as service troops, they manned a sector that , until the American offensive began on September 26, had long been quiet. Most of its youthful members had been transferred to other units in more active parts of the front, leaving behind men in their thirties and early forties. These troops were not about to be inspired to make a last-ditch, to-the-death stand. Though the 2nd Landwehr Division’s journal complains of the low morale of the men, they were veterans who had been in continuous combat for nearly two weeks, had put up surprisingly stiff resistance in the fight for the Aire valley, and had lost some 5,000 men–more than half the strength of the division. Now they held the high ground that looked down on the Americans moving forward. In an area that until now had not seen fighting, the woods were still thick and the undergrowth tangled. When York’s 2nd Battalion reached the center of the valley, the heights around them crack led with fire. Mortar shells rained down. Doughboys leaped into the first available shell hole, bobbed up a little later, then raced to one farther along. York observed his company’s executive officer get shot, rise, go forward, then fall with a fatal wound.
Sergeant Parsons realized that his forward platoons were trapped. The only remedy was to silence the machine guns that were taking deadly aim from a wooded hill to the left. He told Sergeant Bernard Early to take those machine guns with his three squads. The squads totaled seventeen men, including Early; only a short time before there had been 24. Parsons understood that he was ordering these men to what looked like certain death, but he had no choice.
York was among the patrol that moved out. Protected by a dense forest growth, they eased their way around the German flank. But the forest benefited both sides: the Americans were not too sure where the Germans were. While probing, they suddenly ran across two Germans with Red Cross armbands. One threw up his hands; the other took off to sound an alarm.
What follows shows the chaos of battle: how blunders, ineptitude, chance, daring, and, yes, heroism, influence its outcome. It shows how a hero is both born and made. In charge of the German line was First Lieutenant Vollmer of the 1st Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry. Like many commanders in a raging battle, he was confused and unhappy. Heavy shelling had forced him to retreat, and he was groping forward again to find the position assigned to his unit. In the wooded terrain, he lost contact with the troops on his left. He was busy setting up nests of machine guns when he heard a commotion to his rear. Rushing back, he found several dozen of his men lounging at breakfast, belts off, weapons down. They were exhausted. He began imploring them to move forward, and then he suddenly saw some Americans who had just broken through underbrush and begun firing. It was York’s patrol. Everyone was startled–York thought he had run across a headquarters detachment–but the Germans were more surprised. For all they knew, this could be the van of an entire regiment. All of the Germans surrendered–save one. He made the mistake of firing at York, and missing. York shot him dead.
Before the Americans could deal with their prisoners, a burst of machine-gun bullets raked the open area. The Germans in their midst had conveniently dropped to the ground a second before, on signal from their comrades above, and none of them were hit. But nine Americans fell dead or wounded. Sergeant Early took a bad hit, as did one corporal, and Corporal Murray Savage–York’s best friend–was killed. With his fellow soldiers seeking cover or pinned down, York found himself alone to deal with the situation. Calmly he hit the ground and began firing. He made sure to fall beside some prisoners so that the machine gunners would have to risk striking their own men to get him. The gunners were scarcely 30 yards up a hillside from him–so close, in fact, that they had to depress their gun barrels to come anywhere near hitting him. Here is York’s account, as recorded in his autobiography:
At first I was shooting from a prone position; that is lying down; jes like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn’t miss a German’s head or body at that distance. And I didn’t….Every time a head come up I done knocked it down.
York’s offhand recounting of the event is in keeping with the actual casualness with which he dispatched the Germans.
In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about 25 yards to come and they were coming right smart. I only had about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too.
Now followed a coup de main York had picked up in Tennessee, something duplicated on the set of the movie, Sergeant York:
I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course , I hadn’t time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.
York showed no mercy that day, emptying his ten-clip Enfield and then, when the Germans rushed forward after realizing he had used his last shot, pumping away with his .45 Colt automatic. As he later wrote, he got a lieutenant “right through the stomach and he dropped and screamed a lot.” In the end, his barrel smoking, ammunition low, he stood, gesturing and shouting for the Germans to lay down their arms.
While York had been firing up the hillside, Lieutenant Vollmer had been busy shooting at him from another direction–but he could not hit him. York had survived a machine-gun assault, a bayonet charge, and Vollmer’s fusillade. Vollmer had seen enough. He called out, “English? ” He had once worked in Chicago and knew the language well.
“No, American,” York replied.
“Good Lord,” the German said, and then he surrendered. York put the .45 to Vollmer’s head and then collected prisoners. Now what? No more machine guns spat down on him, no bullets whizzed by him, but he was now in charge of a sizable group of Germans and had much enemy terrain to travel before he could get back inside his own lines. Vollmer blew a whistle and Germans came down the hillside and out of the brush with hands raised. One German remained unmollified and had the ill luck to lob a grenade York’s way. York shot him immediately.
A strange double column of men then moved out. York led the way, placing Germans on either side of himself as cover. He ordered the Germans to carry the American wounded, and he aligned the few walking Americans to guard the sides and rear. Curiously, York had to ask Vollmer the way to the American lines. Vollmer said one way; York, his mountaineer suspicions raised, went the other. And then he ran into other machine-gun nests. A Lieutenant Thoma, who was technically under Vollmer’s command, had guns leveled down on the double column that now came suddenly marching to ward him out of nowhere. Before the Germans could fire, however, Vollmer called out, “It is useless, we are surrounded.” York took more prisoners. Others fell in along the way. York kept his .45 pointed at Vollmer and captured German after German. One gunner refused, and York shot him dead. In miraculous fashion, York was silencing the guns that had caused such havoc on the Americans crossing the valley from Hill 223. York’s single-handed exploit was an essential ingredient in the eventual capture of the Decauville Railroad.
In getting back, York had other problems to face besides German fire. He feared friendly artillery might mistake his prisoners for a German counter attack and shell them. That did not happen But when he finally reached battalion headquarters, he learned that they could not handle his prisoners. He marched them to regimental headquarters. The results were the same. He kept them going, all the way to division headquarters, where he finally found a home for them.
We were constantly under heavy shell fire and I had to double-time them to get them through safely. There was nothing to be gained by having any more of them wounded or killed. They done surrendered to me and it was up to me to look after them. And so I done done it. I had orders to report to Brigadier General Lindsay, our brigadier commander, and he said to me, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damned German army.” And I told him I only had 132.
York didn’t get much of a breather right after the fight. His outfit continued to take heavy losses through the Argonne offensive, and once an exploding shell blew him into the air as he desperately dug a foxhole; however, he was unhurt. But on November 1, 10 days before the Armistice, he was rotated to a rest area and given the rank of sergeant.
YORK HAD MARCHED INTO THE ROUGH WOODS OF THE ARGONNE an obscure corporal. He emerged a mythical hero: Sergeant York. He was given credit for killing 25 Germans, capturing 132, and silencing 35 machine guns. He did it virtually all on his own, armed with just an Enfield rifle, a .45 pistol, and his own brand of fortitude. He had seen his best friend slaughtered in the first rounds of machine-gun fire on the slope; he had kept going. He had seen things that he tried unsuccessfully to forget until his death in 1964, often dropping to his knees to pray for the souls of the Americans as well as Germans who died that day. Medals began showering down on him; his tunic was unable to hold them all. Marshal Ferdinand Foch pinned the Croix de Guerre on him. Even little Montenegro handed out a medal. The United States, of course, did the most. York won an immediate Distinguished Service Cross and, after the usual investigation, was awarded the Medal of Honor. The press discovered him; the pivotal story was written by the veteran war correspondent George Pattullo for the Saturday Evening Post, which had a circulation of over 2 million and greatly shaped public opinion.
York landed in Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 22, 1919, met by streamers and a throng of reporters and well-wishers. He was feted in New York and Washington, then finally allowed to go back to Tennessee for his discharge and a return to the hills from whence he came.
When the dust settled, when all the hoopla ended, some disagreements developed. His exploit did seem like more than one man could do. The scene of the fight had been wild and chaotic, shrouded in fog, dust, smoke, and confusion. When the army first gathered sworn affidavits from the American soldiers who had been there, a short time after the event, they confirmed what has since been handed down as history. York himself had kept a diary, in which he chronicled his day-to-day army experiences, including those of October 8. (Stubborn to the end, he had gone against orders in keeping a diary that might fall into enemy hands if he were captured; he said he hadn’t come to France to be captured.) Even before York landed in America, some members of his old patrol had found time to become disgruntled. They wanted some credit, too. They felt that York was hogging it all. It wasn’t York, though, who was creating the clamor; it was a public thirsting for an authentic hero in the war, someone to personify the common, ordinary doughboy. York himself was keeping his usual quiet profile, never a man to enjoy a fuss, never anyone to brag, but his buddies’ carping did reach his ears. His lone reply: “They raised their right hands and swore to those affidavits.”
It would be unthinkable for the Germans not to come forward after the war to disagree with the American version of the event. In 1929, a German living in Sweden ran across York’s story in a newspaper. He became outraged at what he considered an insult to the German soldier, and he sent off a hot letter to the German minister of war, suggesting that Germans investigate York’s alleged exploit. This was done by the Reichsarchiv, the government records office, which tracked down 22 soldiers–including Vollmer–who had been west of Chatel Chehery on October 8, 1918, and got their affidavits. They all said York was a fine and brave soldier but it had not happened the way the Americans said. York had not killed all those Germans, he had not put those machine guns out of action, he had not corralled all those prisoners. Throughout the reports, understandably, is the umbrage they took that the German fighting soldier, who was world renowned, was shown in this case to have something lacking. No lone American soldier could have done what York had done. Other troops had helped; the Germans had been surrounded; York had taken credit for prisoners someone else had already captured–and so on and so forth. The Reichsarchiv even got indignant, 10 years after the fact, that York had put a pistol to the head of the unfortunate Vollmer and threatened to blow his brains out if he did not cooperate.
Nevertheless, as an American major general, George Duncan, had told reporters in 1919, “The more we investigated [York ‘s] exploit the more remarkable it appeared.” In 1935, after investigation after investigation, York’s old company commander, Captain Danforth, summed up the official American conclusion: “Credit was given where credit was due.” As amazing as it seems, as far as it is humanly possible to know, York did it.
But why Alvin C. York, from Fentress County, Tennessee? Much has been made of his backwoods character, his Southern heritage. It is true that a great deal of American soldiering has fallen on the shoulders of Southerners. Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in World War II, had a background not dissimilar to York’s. He had a hardscrabble past and he was from Texas. But for all the Yorks and Murphys in the South, there are countless others who are far meeker and might choose the backward path or cower for cover before the enemy. And some become heroes only after initial failure. For example, Sam Ervin, the famed chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, was a Southerner from Morganton, North Carolina, which was a range or two over from the Cumberlands. He was as thorough and honorable a Southerner as York.
In France during World War I, as a second lieutenant on the Saint-Mihiel salient–flu-ridden, cold, unable to command the respect of his men–he abandoned his post, in the face of the enemy, for a safe, dry dugout. He got broken to the rank of private and suffered the indignity of having to return to the ranks with men he used to command. Fortified with that bit of humiliation, he went on to battlefield glory. He won the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the French Fourragere for bravery. Under heavy fire, he led a rescue party several times to the front lines to remove the wounded; he was badly wounded himself. He had become fearless in the face of fire. He may have passed the ultimate test of bravery, in swallowing the bitterness of his first failure, returning to the fray, and then persevering no matter what. In so doing, he was following a scenario that was not unknown in American battlefield lore. In Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming flees from the horrendous sight of battlefield carnage at what is presumed to be Chancellorsville and then, when the shame of it hits him, returns to carry the colors forward, a warrior. Ervin’s and Fleming’s stories give us comfort because we ordinary souls, removed to the hammock or the easy chair when we read about them, can see ourselves in their tales. We can anticipate being a coward in battle, but we hope we will stand firm. We like to believe there are second chances in life.
What, then, is true heroism? Medals, ticker-tape parades, adoration in the press, fall to those we deem worthy.
Surely they should feel they are of a special breed. But no Medal of Honor winner has ever been known to claim publicly that a different kind of blood flows through his veins than in the ordinary man. The standard reply from these heroes, almost to the man, is “You’d have done the same thing given the circumstances.” York, Audie Murphy–their responses are the same: they just did what they had to do. In a strange way, those who do not go forward, who may run backward or freeze, repeat the same refrain: You’d have done the same thing, brother, if you’d been there. I know a solid citizen who had once been a shavetail second lieutenant at Omaha beach during the early fighting at Normandy. He said he hugged a tree for an entire day, unable to make his body move a inch. He said, probably correctly, “You’d have done the same, believe me.”
A popular hero may be needed by the people at the time, but he tends to be soon forgotten. General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, made only one offhand acknowledgment of York. In his mind there were others just as deserving, or more so. He had wanted Sergeant Samuel Woodfill, a Regular Army man who, by himself, silenced five machine-gun nests on October 12, 1918, to be the one and only popularly acclaimed, mud-spattered, indomitable hero. Like York, Woodfill won the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism. There were others as well. Major Charles Whittlesey, a New York lawyer before the war, led his surrounded “Lost Battalion” against impossible odds. He took 600 men into battle and, after clinging to a steep bank and a bit of swale for six days, came out with 194.
He had kept his cool, dispatching patrols and carrier pigeons and never giving up. He won the Medal of Honor, became a hero, but under continuing strain committed suicide in 1921 by jumping over the side of a vacation liner bound for Cuba. Lieutenant Harold D. Furlong won the same medal by personally taking on four machine guns and 20 enemy soldiers–and prevailing. “There was no choice to do anything different,” he said afterward. Gunnery Sergeant Fred Stockham of the U.S. Marines carried wounded and gassed Marines from Belleau Wood. When a shell ripped through the gas mask of a man he was carrying, he pulled off his own and gave it to the man. Choking and coughing, he made several trips without a mask to retrieve more wounded before finally collapsing. He died nine days later. His lieutenant’s recommendation for a medal was lost, but years later his comrades pressed his case, and in 1939, through a special act of Congress, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
All of these Medal of Honor winners were heroes as much as York. But it was York who captured the public’s imagination. York was rangy, freckle faced, and steadfast as steel, and he had a girl in gingham waiting for him back home. It could be that Whittlesey’s Yankee comportment, Woodfill’s Regular Army status, and simply the luck of the draw took them and others out of the sweepstakes; in any case, it was York who became the doughboy hero. His story had everything.
The right moment and the right training must come together for a popular hero to emerge. A person must go through several stages before that decisive moment can happen, that moment that elevates him to an exalted stature, even if only for a short time. York had expert training and experience with the rifle; he had been subjected to fire; and he had also become convinced of the rightness of his cause. He had no trouble killing the enemy and believing it was necessary to prevail. York fit right in with the doctrine of the American war machine, from Pershing on down, which was that advances should be achieved by infantry rushes. In World War I, Americans didn’t rely on the machine gun offensively; they relied on the rifle. And when Americans engaged the enemy, Pershing believed, the “independent character” of the American soldier would prevail. York was certainly independent, and he had practically been born with a rifle in his hand. When York went into those wooded slopes, the man and the moment came together.
Most men do not like to fire at an other human being. In Men Against Fire, S.L.A. Marshall states that in World War II only about 15 percent of the men in a company normally fired their weapons at the enemy during an engagement; in exceptional circumstances, the number might rise to 25 or 30 percent. Not all military experts agree with Marshall, but no one contends that in war every soldier fires his weapon at other people as he is expected to. Some soldiers receive all the training there is, listen to all the lectures and propaganda, end up on the front lines, and then fire up in the air when the enemy appears. Others fight, and keep fighting, even when they are held to a foxhole and a line of tanks is rumbling toward them. Research commissioned by the Department of the Army in 1957 of 310 men who had fought in Korea found that the more intelligent a man and the more stable the home life he came from, the better fighter he made. The smart man might find troubling a war that his conscience said was morally wrong; but, once convinced of its right, he makes a far better fighter than the dim, plodding person who accepts everything at face value. He makes a better leader. And anyone who has had a taste of the violence of sports knows something–remotely, it is granted–of war. Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage in 10 days in a vacation cottage in Lakeview, New Jersey, had played quarterback in the new game of football only a few years earlier, but he had never fought in the Civil War–or even been in any other war. He said, “I do believe I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”
IN THE HOWARD HAWKS FILM SERGEANT YORK, which won an Academy Award for best actor, Gary Cooper, as York, returns to a glorious storybook farm that the appreciative citizens of Tennessee have bought for their hero. In truth, York returned to 400 acres of undeveloped, mortgaged land that he mostly had to pay off himself. After heroic deeds, a hero in America often finds fate far less accommodating. Medals, ticker-tape parades, and newspaper features go only so far. Audie Murphy could sleep only with a pistol beneath his pillow, made good money but worse investments, and died in a plane crash in 1971 at age 46, bankrupt.
In later life, York did nothing that would separate him from the myth that had been created around him. He went to the grave in 1964 a symbol of patriotism, piety, and deadly aim with a firearm. It was not easy. He turned down chances to make a bundle in vaudeville. He was offered money to endorse chewing gum, a brand of rifle, and any number of other products–and he refused. He married his Tennessee sweetheart, Gracie Williams, stayed married, and produced three sons. Like Murphy, though, he did not have much luck with investments. He had to turn into a nearly perpetual fund-raising machine to pay off farm debts, keep the York Agricultural Institute afloat, and head off the Internal Revenue Service at the pass. The institute grew out of a dream he had of bringing the modern age to the mountains, of doing away with illiteracy. York might butcher the King’s English, but the love of learning had been passed down to him as a Scots Irish heritage. Poverty, not an absence of desire, accounts for the meager education in the hills. Stonewall Jackson, the strict Presbyterian from the hills of West Virginia, studied by the light of a burning pine knot. Abraham Lincoln’s formal education lasted just one year–but he borrowed books and worked out problems on the back of a wooden shovel, which he then shaved clean so he could use it again. Given the chance, these people of pioneer stock go to great lengths to acquire knowledge and bring the outside to their region.
York was of this stripe, but the school he started had chronic trouble paying for itself, and he proved far less able with administration than with marksmanship. Like the boxing heavy weight Joe Louis and the literary heavy weight Edmund Wilson and many others, York ran afoul of the IRS. According to David D. Lee in Sergeant York, an American Hero, in 1959 York was taking care of himself, his wife, and a sister-in-law on $3,483.15 a year, including the $10 a month awarded every Medal of Honor winner. He owed the government $172,723.10 . It took the divine intervention of the powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn to cut a deal with the tax people and arrange for popular donations to pay the reduced bill.
York did make money and had ascertain shrewdness to him, but what came in went out for good works and to support a farm that never paid off. As an example of York’s perspicacity, no more needs to be said than that in wrangling over a contract for the movie rights to his life’s story, he demanded a percent age of the gross receipts, not the net. York hadn’t traded mules for nothing. But the money he got went to his school and contributed to his down ward spiral with the IRS. He hit oil on his property in 1947 and thought his money problems were over, but then he dug several dry holes that wiped out his gain; he ended up collecting around $300 a year in oil revenue. He could probably have been elected to any office in Tennessee but could never bring himself to suffer the indignity of a campaign. During World II he briefly considered running against a young, unknown congressman, Albert Gore. He decided not to. (Gore went on to be come a senator and the father of the current vice president.)
York was mortal. He spent his last years bedridden from strokes and various ailments. The historian Edward M. Coffman, a young man in the late 1950s, was passing through Tennessee. He took a chance and called on York in his big white house. York was gracious and welcoming. It was August, and York was propped up in a little room off the kitchen, in a hospital bed, with a gas heater on nearby. Coffman remembers him as a big man with a high pitched voice, his hair still red. And though he could not move from bed, he seemed, in Coffman’s recollection, to be in full command of the household and to control the movement of the large extended family that filtered in and out of the adjacent kitchen.
York was more sophisticated and worldly than might be supposed. After the war he took as his secretary a devoted man who came from Brooklyn. Arthur Bushing had wandered into the mountains by chance, fallen in love, and married a native girl. The Brooklynite became one of York’s closest confidants and advisers. York didn’t seem to be bothered by ethnic differences as some of his hill brethren were. As he said about his old outfit:
There were some mountaineers. Not many of them, though. Jes a few. There were Jews from the East Side of New York; there were English and Irish boys from the mill towns of New England; there were Greeks and Italians from some of the big cities in the East; there were Poles and Slavs from the coal mines of Pennsylvania; there were farmers from the Middle West; there were cow punchers from Oklahoma and Texas; and there were even some German boys.
To the end, the onetime conscientious objector was ready to mix it up and fight. He favored aid to Britain be fore the United States entered World War II, and he wanted to “bust up all of old man Hitler’s ships and submarines.” He tried to enlist when war was declared but flunked the physical. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, he was ready again. He blamed the Soviets, and–sad to report–was ready to drop the atomic bomb from the 38th parallel all the way to Moscow. He was good to have next to you in a foxhole, not so good to determine the fate of the world.
In the end, we are perhaps left more with the myth than the man in trying to capture Alvin York. Gary Cooper, as York, finds religion when lightning strikes him one stormy night in the middle of a road and destroys his rifle. It is a dramatic scene, so effective that even one of York’s sons believed it was true. It never happened. York’s conversion was triggered by a revival in which lightning played no part. The storybook farm never happened. I recently saw the movie again, and I can report that few of the Tennessee accents are accurate not Cooper’s, not Walter Brennan’s, certainly not that of Joan Leslie as Gracie Williams, York’s sweetheart and later wife. Only one certified mountain twang comes through–that of Robert Porterfield, who played the cowardly rival for Gracie’s hand. Porterfield was a consummate actor. He started the Barter Theater in Abington, Virginia, which was composed of out-of-work actors in the Depression who brought Broadway plays to schoolhouse auditoriums throughout Appalachia. I saw my first play because of Porterfield, and I can only describe the experience as momentous. He was, in his own small way, a hero too. Alvin C. York, with rifle, family, and love of the land, was many things, hero among them. But one thing we may safely say he was not: he was no Gary Cooper.
JOHN BOWERS is a novelist whose last nonfiction book is Chickamauga & Chattanooga: The Battles That Doomed the Confederacy (HarperCollins, 1994).