Last month I visited Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park in Pall Mall, TN. I took many photos (as usual), the best of which I now share with you, in addition to a brief bio of a true Appalachian hero.
Sgt Alvin C. York was the most famous American World War I soldier. He famously killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 others in the Argonne Forest in France. A recipient of the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre, he was the subject of a classic 1941 movie Sergeant York in which he was portrayed by Gary Cooper.
Ironically, York very nearly refused to serve in the war. Early in his life, he had been a bit of a hellion, enjoying hard drinking and hard living. This lifestyle was not without its dangers. One night his friend was killed in a bar fight, an event that so shook young Alvin York that he gave up drinking and joined his mother's church, becoming a devout Christian.
York's new church believed strongly in pacifism. York shared this belief that killing was a sin, which made it very difficult for him to join the war effort when he received a notice to register for the draft. York simply wrote "don't want to fight" on his registration card. He struggled mightily over what to do next, spending much time in prayer before finally deciding he must enter service.
In spite of his decision, York remained a committed pacifist upon entry into the Army, which led to numerous theological discussions and debates among his fellow soldiers. These discussions would eventually convince him that war could be justified in some cases.
On October 8, 1918, York performed an amazing and heroic feat that would make him a legend. Seventeen men, including York, infiltrated German lines to take out machine guns. Unfortunately, the Americans were hit with machine gun fire, killing six Americans and wounding three others, including York's superior, leaving York in charge of the seven remaining soldiers.
As his men remained under cover, York advanced toward the machine guns. German Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer fired repeatedly at York even as he dodged machine gun fire but failed to injure him. When Vollmer ran out of bullets, he surrendered to York. York and his men were able to capture 132 German prisoners. These deeds earned him the Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre, among others.
Upon his return home, York remained humble and did not wish to be viewed as a hero. He decline numerous opportunities to sell his story, opting instead to marry his sweetheart and return to his home in Pall Mall. It was not until 1941 that he would authorize a film.
York's experiences in Europe led him to conclude that education was needed in his community, and he went to work establishing schools. He started a Bible school in Pall Mall, as well as Alvin C. York Institute in 1926. The Institute would struggle during the early years, and York sometimes paid teacher's salaries from his own pocket. The school was taken over by the state in 1937 and remains Jamestown's primary high school.
Sgt York was a powerful symbol of the region from which he came: a simple, kind hearted man capable to great heroism and who believed strongly in the power of education. We are all well served to remember his example.
Historic marker in Jamestown, TN
Wolf River Post Office and store. The store is still owned by the York family.
Alvin York's house.
Cross posted at Appalachian Scribe