- Historic Sites
In the Meuse-Argonne, this backwoods pacifist did what Marshal Foch saw as “the greatest thing accomplished by any private’ soldier of all the armies of Europe.”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
York’s platoon, the 1st, was on the far left. It jumped off at 6:10 A.M. without benefit of the artillery barrage that was supposed to precede the assault. With no covering fire, the men descended the wooded slope and started across the floor of the valley. The Germans had it enfiladed, the flanking fire so heavy that the first wave of doughboys was virtually wiped out. The battalion hit the ground. A lieutenant tried to rally the men. He got only ten yards before he fell with a wound in his thigh. He struggled upright and hopped forward on one foot until a bullet struck him in the head.
With his men pinned down by enemy fire, Captain Danforth sent a detachment from the 1st Platoon to outflank the guns. Sergeant Harry Parsons, who commanded it, saw Danforth motion to the hill on the left. Parsons quickly chose three squads for the mission—York’s and those led by Corporals William C. Cutting and Murray Savage. Altogether they had already lost seven of their twenty-four men.
Parsons put Sergeant Bernard Early, an Irishman from New Haven, Connecticut, in charge. As the squads formed and moved out, Parsons was sure they were going to certain death.
With Early in the lead, the men dropped back from the battalion and in single file skirted far to the left and deep into the brush, finding an old, abandoned trench and following it around the hill to somewhere behind the German defense perimeter without being seen. They paused to discuss what to do next. Some wanted to attack from the flank—they were now three hundred yards to the left and in front of the American line. Early, York, and a few others decided it would be best to get still farther behind the Germans and then swing in and attack from the rear.
The men ran crouching from bush to bush and stump to stump, seeking cover as they pushed deeper into German territory. Several times they came across fresh German footprints; they could hear the machine guns.
Suddenly two German stretcher-bearers appeared. Ignoring an order to halt, they ran, trailed by a few shots from the Americans. Early got the squads into a skirmish line and gave chase, hoping to cut off the fleeing Germans before they could sound an alarm.
Jumping a small stream, they came upon a stretch of flat ground, and there, beside a hut, was a German major conferring with two other officers; not far from them sat some twenty enemy runners and stretcher-bearers. They had stumbled on the headquarters of a German machine-gun regiment. The enemy soldiers had their backs to the Americans, eating breakfast. Beyond, a steep, thickly wooded slope rose to where German machine gunners were firing into the valley.
The Americans got off some shots, wounding two or three Germans, and raced forward with fixed bayonets. Most of the Germans surrendered immediately. One fired at York. The mountaineer shot him dead. Early ordered his men to quit firing and surround the enemy. Then, as he told the doughboys to line up the captured Germans, a burst of bullets struck him. The machine gunners on top of the slope had heard the shooting and, frantically swiveling their weapons, had opened fire into the camp.
Early fell with six bullets in him. He called out to Cutting to take command but Cutting was out of action, too, with three bullets in his left arm. Two of the men in his squad had been killed outright. Savage fell to what seemed like a hundred bullets that nearly stripped his body naked. The only two remaining members of his squad died too, and two of York’s own squad were down—one dead, the other wounded in the shoulder.
The ferocious storm of bullets was now chopping through the brush. Only York and seven privates had escaped being hit by the initial burst. George Wills, who had been following Cutting, had dropped to the ground and edged closer to some German prisoners. “I knew that my only chance was to keep them together,” he remembered, “and also to keep them between me and the Germans who were shooting. ” Wills kept his rifle trained on the nearest prisoners.
Michael Saccina had also dropped beside some Germans, using them as a shield. He didn’t dare to turn and fire back.
Privates Joe Konotski, Theodore Sok, Thomas Johnson, and Patrick Donohue were hugging the ground too, keeping their prisoners covered. Meanwhile, off to the side, Percy Beardsley, who had trailed behind York all morning, ducked behind a tree. Dead Americans lay sprawled on either side of him and he couldn’t get his gun to operate. “It looked pretty hopeless for us,” he said.
Fifteen paces away, on the extreme left, at the bottom of the steep slope scoured by enemy fire—and less than thirty yards from the nearest machine-gun nest—was Alvin York. He had been caught in the open when the shooting began. The machine guns—there were between twenty and thirty of them—were firing straight down at him. “Thousands of bullets kicked up the dust all around us,” he said. “The undergrowth was cut down … as though they had used a scythe.”