Sergeant York

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One of the first things York had done on arriving at Camp Gordon was to tell the company commander, Captain E. C. B. Danforth, Jr., about his religious beliefs. Danforth informed the battalion commander, Major George E. Buxton, Jr., who summoned York to his hut.

To his credit, Buxton, a newspaperman from Providence, Rhode Island, quickly assessed York as sincere. When York said he accepted “every sentence, every word” in the Bible, Buxton quoted St. Luke, St. John, St. Matthew, and Ezekiel to show how “under certain conditions a man could go to war and fight and still be a good Christian.” The major pointed out that Christ had said, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.” Yes, York acknowledged, Christ had said that, but He also said, “If a man smite you on one cheek, turn the other to him.” Buxton countered with Christ’s driving the money-changers from the Temple. Would Christ have stood by and not done anything when “the helpless Belgian people were overrun and driven from their homes”?

The discussion went back and forth for an hour and a half, and, though York was impressed by Buxton’s arguments, he was not convinced. He asked the major for time to think. That night he prayed until reveille but failed to resolve his torment.

At last he applied for leave and returned to Pall Mall in March on a ten-day furlough. He felt Buxton would release him from the Army if he was still opposed to fighting. “But something in me had … changed. I was beginning to see war in a different light.”

As before, York sought solace in the mountains. He knelt and prayed “all the afternoon, through the night and through part of the next day. … And as I prayed there alone a great peace … came into my soul and a great calm come over me and I received my assurance. He heard my prayer and He come to me on the mountainside. …

“I begun to understand that no matter what a man is forced to do, so long as he is right in his own soul, he remains a righteous man. I knowed I would go to war.”

The 82nd Division arrived in France in mid-May of 1918 and was immediately sent in reserve to the British army on the Somme. The men first heard the sounds of war in June, when they were transferred to the French army in the defense of Tours. York went out on patrol and survived a poison gas attack. Everywhere he went he was comforted by his Bible. He was convinced that he would not be harmed.

In late summer the 82nd was shifted to the Marbache sector along the Moselle and took part in the first American offensive, holding the extreme right flank and capturing the towns of Norroy and Vandervies during the St.-Mihiel drive. York’s battalion, the 2nd, had plunged into the battle on the night of September 12 after a crushing artillery barrage. Cutting their way through barbed wire, the men advanced without losses as the Germans fell back. York remembered how they “cussed the Germans out for not standing and they kept yelling at them to wait and fight it out.” Just before the battle, York had been promoted to corporal. He was supposed to lead his squad, “but no matter how fast I went they wanted to go faster, so … they could get at the Germans.” Not that they were doing much damage: “They were still mostly hitting the ground or the sky. …”

On September 17 the division was pulled out of the front lines and a week later transferred to the Argonne Forest, in preparation for what was to be the final campaign of the war. As part of that offensive, the 82nd would remain in continuous action for twenty-six days, longer than any other division in the battle. The fight in the forest was “as bloody and difficult as any the war has seen,” one correspondent reported. “Their machine gunners fight generally until they are killed and effect a formidable barrier to any advance. The nature of the terrain gives excellent positions for machine gun defense.”

The 82nd went into action on October 8, making a complicated and hazardous attack across the front of one of its own sister divisions in order to relieve pressure on the Americans’ exposed left flank. The objective was the narrow-gauge Decauville Railroad, which supplied the Germans.

After spending a bleak, drizzly day and night under heavy bombardment, hunkered down in holes along a roadside, the men at last moved forward to their jumping-off point. York remembered passing wounded men, “some of them … lying around moaning and twitching. And oh, my! the dead were all along the road and their mouths were open and their eyes, too.”

As the early-morning mist cleared, the 2nd Battalion found itself poised along the slope of Hill 223, captured the day before by the 1st Battalion. An open valley several hundred yards wide stretched ahead, and at its end three hills stood before the rail line, the center one ragged and steep, the others gently sloping. The crest of the ridge they formed was defended by veteran Prussian Guards, machine gunners massed in battalion strength. As the sun came up, the German gunners had an unobstructed view of the entire valley.