Army Sgt. Alvin C. York was one of the early members of the 82nd Infantry Division and helped establish that unit’s legendary status when he captured 132 German soldiers almost single-handedly after his small detachment was drawn into a fight with a massive force.
Now, the Association of the United States Army has made a graphic novel celebrating his life and the stunning World War I action that earned him a Medal of Honor.
York was born in rural Tennessee near the Kentucky border and was responsible for helping support his mother and ten siblings from a very early age. Most of his work was physical. It included going into the woods to hunt game to be cooked and served on the family table. This developed the young York into a crack shot, something that would come in handy during the World War in his future.
As a teen, York became a zealous, fundamental Christian. When war broke out and he was drafted, he applied for conscientious objector status on the basis of his religion. It was declined and York was sent to the 82nd.
But if Alvin C. York was going to be a soldier, he was going to be a good one.
Painting of then-Cpl. Alvin C. York depicting the World War I engagement that made him famous.
On October 8, 1918, York went with 16 other men to scout and seize German positions in a valley ahead of a general advance. They spotted two German medics filling canteens and attempted to rush them. The medics managed to stay ahead of the Americans as they fled back to their own lines.
There, the Germans were preparing for an attack with over 100 soldiers — and the pursuing Americans stumbled right into them.
Sgt. Alvin C. York stands on the hill where he captured the bulk of 132 German soldiers in 1918.
The Americans were in huge trouble. Nine of them were quickly killed. York, as a corporal, took command and begin sending deadly accurate fire into German machine gunners. As he later said,
“…those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful…. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down…. As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. 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.”
In case you missed it in that quote, York was yelling for the Germans to surrender before he had to kill all of them.
York aimed to claim either the surrender or the lives of all the Germans attacking him and his men. York fired through all of his rifle ammo and was forced to rely on his pistol as the Germans mounted a rush against him.
The young hunter had learned on turkey shoots to kill from the back of a rush first, as killing the turkeys near the front would cause the flock to split off in all directions. He applied this technique with his pistol against the rush, killing the Germans at the back first so the rest would keep coming towards him.
Finally, a German officer, surrounded by at least 20 of his own dead troops, decided that his own men were too badly outnumbered and outgunned. Thinking he was highly outnumbered, the officer surrendered approximately 90 men to York, who, by this point, was fighting nearly alone.
Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin C. York returns after the war to the Tennessee home where he grew up. The woman on the left is his mother, and the girl in the middle is one of his younger sisters.
(Underwood and Underwood)
York accepted the surrender, rounded up the last of his living men, and began escorting the prisoners back to American lines and taking on more Germans as they went. By the time the party reached York’s unit, the handful of Americans were escorting 132 German prisoners of war.
York was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his accomplishments and received it in April, 1919, after the war.
AUSA’s graphic novel celebrating his life is available here.