On October 8, 1918, 17 soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Infantry Division attacked a German position near Chatel-Chéhéry in the Ardennes. Six Americans died in the assault and three others were wounded. But the survivors fought on, led by a 30-year-old corporal, and captured 132 enemy soldiers – including a major and three lieutenants – and seized 35 machine guns. In recognition of his bravery on the battlefield, corporal Alvin York received the American Medal of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
“What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe,” said Marshal Foch as he pinned the Croix de Guerre with palms to the American soldier’s chest. Sergeant York was a hero. Upon returning to the United States in April 1919, the city of New York threw him a parade on Broadway and The Saturday Evening Post published a first-page account of his exploits. An avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has since been named after him and a silver dollar coin bearing his likeness was released last January.
Alvin York is one of the cult characters America loves, and has been compared to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, and even Abraham Lincoln. After a tough childhood in the hills of Tennessee, he left school after less than a year to help his father as a blacksmith. After his father died, he worked as a hunter, a woodsman, and on the railroads to support his mother and his ten brothers and sisters. After years of alcoholism and brawling he turned to God and joined a Protestant community renowned for its strict lifestyle. When the United States joined the war in 1917 he positioned himself as a conscientious objector, stating his beliefs prevented him from fighting. It was only after a superior convinced him the war was moral – as it was justified by God – that he decided to enlist. He arrived in Le Havre on May 21, 1918.
After the war, Alvin York refused the 30,000 dollars offered to produce a variety show about his experience, but accepted a proposal from Hollywood. He was played by Gary Cooper, and Howard Hawks’ movie Sergeant York won two Oscars. “A lot of what most people know about York is taken from the 1941 Gary Cooper film,” says Michael Birdwell, a historian at Tennessee Tech University, who studied Alvin York’s feats and how he became a hero. “He was a completely different person. Hollywood often has to cut corners to represent historical truth in 90-minute segments. Though that can lead to some misrepresentation, it’s often a net positive to produce films that detail history.”
The 11-page comic book produced by the Association of the United States Army and available free on their website focuses on Sergeant York’s military accomplishments. He is depicted a mustachioed giant of a man, speaking like an illiterate redneck, and proudly correcting a German officer who mistakes him for an Englishman: “No. Not English. American.” A simple, patriotic vision of the celebrated soldier who passed away in 1964.