Alvin Cullen York (December 13, 1887 – September 2, 1964) was awarded the United States Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Argonne, France during World War I. Sergeant York also received the Distinguished Service Cross, the World War I Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the French Légion d'honneur, the French Croix de guerre with Palm, the Italian Croce di Guerra, and the Montenegrin War Medal, making him one of the most decorated American soldiers of WWI.
York was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children born to William and Mary Brooks York. He had minimal schooling as a child, totaling about 9 months of education. This was because the back-woods region of Tennessee saw little use for a good education. Many viewed hunting as a more desirable trait than a strong mind. So through many hunting trips with his father, William York, Alvin grew to be an excellent marksman, gaining a legendary reputation throughout Fentress County, Tennessee. Soon, he became a heavy drinker and gambler, getting himself into all sorts of trouble. The death of his father could have contributed to his harmful lifestyle. But that all changed in 1914, when he converted to Christianity. Many say the change was instantaneous. It was due in part to his mother’s constant requests asking him to stop drinking and gambling. The conversion could also be attributed to the death of his friend after he had been killed in a bar fight. He started going to the Church of Christ in Christian Union.
World War I
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I on the side of the allies. And on June 5, 1917, York received a draft notice ordering him to join the U.S. forces. He appealed the draft, explaining that his church abhorred war and prohibited killing of any kind. His appeal was refused, however, and he was forced to go to France to protect democracy. His story of heroism began in Argonne, France. His squad saw a few German soldiers and ordered them to halt, but they ignored the squad and ran away. The American squad chased them down and captured them. Strangely, a German officer came and surrendered his whole squad over to the Americans, even though the small American squad of sixteen was inferior to his. Then German machine-gunners fired upon the Americans, killing nine of them. Alvin York shot and killed at least twenty of the Germans. Then he took the German officer and promised he would be next if the officer did not tell the machine-gunners to surrender. The officer blew a whistle and all but one of them surrendered. York shot the final gunner. In total, York captured 135 Germans with his small squad of nine. He was praised throughout the world for this feat and promoted to sergeant.
When the war was won and York returned home, he came back with a new respect for education. He used the money he received as gifts to build the York Institute. While trying to promote education, he drove himself into deep debt. And with his health failing, it looked as if he would not be able to pay off such amounts of money. When the IRS hassled him for the money, President John F. Kennedy reprimanded them, saying their “actions in the case were a national disgrace”. Congressman Joe L. Evins started the York relief fund to help York pay off his debts. They raised $100,000 and gave his family the remainder of $30,000 to keep them from ever getting in such debt again. Alvin C. York died at the age of 76 on September 2, 1964.