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War Hero Alvin York: How A Pacifist Became the Most Decorated Soldier of World War

“The greatest thing in all my life has been the privilege of serving my fellow man.”

Alvin Cullum York was born on a small farm in Tennessee, to an impoverished family with eleven children. He only attended school for nine months before he had to return to farm and hunt to help provide for the family. Despite his limited formal education, York was a man of faith and conviction.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, York registered for the draft and was sent to Europe. 

But York was a pacifist. He registered as a conscientious objector (C.O.)– meaning his Faith prevented him from acts of violence– but he was denied C.O. status. York was torn about participating in the conflicts.  However, after a talk with his commanding officers about their Faith, he took 10 days to walk the Tennessee Mountains and pray. He came to believe that fighting in the war was his duty as an American and the right thing to do before God.

York Goes to War

York returned to the European war front; he joined the Meuse-Argonne offensive, York and his unit were tasked with capturing a heavily fortified German position. 

But after all four officers were killed, York assumed command. He summited a hill lined with machine guns. Despite being vastly outnumbered, York and the handful of remaining soldiers were able to charge the position and capture 132 enemy soldiers and several machine guns. 

“I noticed the bushes all around where I stood in my fight with the machine guns were all cut down. The bullets went over my head and on either side. But they never touched me.”

In his own words, Alvin York remembers that:

And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life.

 I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush … As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. 

I was sharp shooting … 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.

-Alvin York

York’s bravery and quick thinking were credited with saving countless American lives, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.

Remembering the conflict York said that, “I had orders to report to Brigadier General Lindsey, 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.”

After the war, York returned to his home in Tennessee and continued to live a simple life. Despite his popularity he remained humble– traveling to speak on behalf of veterans’ rights.

In addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor, York was also awarded several other honors and decorations for his service in World War I. He is inducted into the National World War I Museum Hall of Fame, and his life story was the subject of a best-selling book and several films.

In 1941, Gary Cooper played the role of Alvin York in the film “Sergeant York”, which was based on his life and achievements. The film was a huge success and further cemented York’s legacy as a hero.