Sergeant York

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Strung along Tennessee’s border with Kentucky were “blind tigers”—illegal drinking shacks that literally straddled the state line. If you were from Tennessee you went to the Kentucky side of the hut to buy liquor and avoid arrest; Kentucky sports stepped over into Tennessee. Together with friends and some of his brothers, Alvin spent weekends carousing. Corn whisky was their chief drink, and it was potent. “I was most always spoiling for a fight,” Alvin admitted later. He took to carrying a revolver and a knife, and the one book he had read had left a “big impression.” To emulate the James boys, he practiced shooting from a galloping mule, tossing the gun from hand to hand, and pumping bullet after bullet into the same spot on a tree.

His devout, hard-working mother despaired. She’d wait up for him at night, embrace him when he came home, and, shaking her head, would weep, unable to “bear to think of where I would go if I died or was killed.”

Alvin occasionally tried to mend his ways, but the turning point came when a “saddlebagger,” a traveling preacher, rode into Pall Mall and began holding nightly revivals at the little Wolf River church. Alvin started attending; he listened and prayed, asking God to forgive his sins and to guide him. “And He did.” On January 1, 1915, York forswore “smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing, and brawling.” He kept that pledge for the rest of his life.

York joined the preacher’s Church of Christ in Christian Union, taught Sunday school, led the choir, and began courting his fellow church member, Grace Williams. Before long he was the church’s Second Elder. Looking back on his conversion long afterward, he called it “the greatest victory I ever won.”

It was, however, a triumph that precipitated another crisis of conscience. When the United States joined in the war in Europe, York did not want to serve. “I had had fighting and quarreling myself. I had found it bad. … I just wanted to be left alone to live in peace and love.”

Summoned by mail to register, York was in turmoil. He had accepted the Bible as God’s inspired word, and the Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill.”

“That was so definite a child could understand it,” he said.

He began walking the mountains at night, praying for guidance. “I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American too. I had always figured the two were sort of connected. And now I was beginning to find out that they were … opposed to each other.”

He talked the dilemma over with Rosier Pile, a cousin who ran the ramshackle store and post office in Pall Mall and was both the local draft registrar and the pastor of York’s church. They agreed the Sixth Commandment took priority.

Accordingly, York claimed exemption when he officially registered, writing, “I don’t want to fight,” on his form and declaring that his church forbade participation in the war. The local board refused to discharge him, on the grounds that the Church of Christ in Christian Union was not a “well-recognized” sect. York appealed the decision to the district draft board in Nashville. It turned him down. He appealed once more. Again he was rejected.

On October 28, 1917, York was summoned to the local board for a physical examination (he measured six foot two and weighed 170 pounds) and on November 14, a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, he was ordered to report immediately for duty at Camp Gordon, outside Atlanta, Georgia. “I just went to that old camp and said nothing. I did everything I was told to … but I was sick at heart just the same.”

York was assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division—the All-American Division, a newly created fighting force whose officers and men represented virtually every state in the Union. It was a severe cultural jolt for York. “They put me by some Greeks and Italians to sleep. ” His outfit was a volatile assortment of bartenders and actors, ice men and farmers, bouncers and millworkers—”a gang of the toughest and most hard-boiled doughboys I ever heard of. … They could out-swear, out-drink, and out-cuss any other crowd of men I have ever knowed.”

They soon found out York was a conscientious objector “and they hadn’t much use for that.” When they teased him, he scrupulously avoided arguing or getting angry. Most of the time, though, they left him alone. He had only one friend, his bunkmate, Corporal Murray Savage, who read the Bible with him.

The draftees were eager to get into action, but their performance on the rifle range made York wonder how effective they would be. “[These] Greeks and Italians and Poles and New York Jews and some of the boys from the big cities hadn’t been used to handling guns. … They missed everything but the sky.” York did better. The Army targets, he said, “were so much bigger than turkeys’ heads. And an Army bull’s-eye is about a million times bigger than a criss-cross cut with a sharp knife on … a tree.”