- 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
The German bullets were flying high now; apparently the gunners were trying to avoid hitting their own men. Lying prone in the mud, York began to return the fire with his rifle. As soon as he saw a helmet, he would shoot. “Every time one of them raised his head, I just teched him off.” It was like a shooting match back home, “but the targets here were bigger. I just couldn’t miss.”
Then, without a care for the storm of bullets around him, York stood up. “Somehow I knew I wouldn’t be killed.” He was now firing “offhand,” mountain style, his right elbow raised high, his body tilted slightly backward to balance his rifle. Offhand was his favorite position.
York had used up several clips of ammunition and the rifle barrel was getting hot in his hand when a German lieutenant and five of his men rose from a trench twenty-five yards away and charged down the slope toward him, bayonets fixed. York dropped his rifle and pulled out his .45 Colt automatic. Carefully he fired at the last man first, then the next farthest from him, and the next—“the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones. … I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them, the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me.” York killed all six men. Then he picked up his rifle again and waited for the next German head to appear. He shouted to the Germans on the slope to come down and surrender; “I didn’t want to kill any more’n I had to. I would tech a couple of them off and holler again.”
York had already killed twenty-one Germans. He had fired twenty shots.
The death of the lieutenant and his men had demoralized the Germans, and their machine-gun fire began to slacken. The lull allowed York to check something: all during the fight he had sensed someone firing at him from behind, where the prisoners were. He turned to see the German major, an empty revolver in hand. He had missed with every shot.
The major—who, it turned out, had once worked in Chicago—approached York. “English?” he asked.
“No, not English.”
“Good Lord,” the major said. “If you don’t shoot any more, I’ll make them surrender.”
He blew a whistle. Down from the slope came the machine-gun crews, throwing off their belts and arms.
As everyone got to his feet, York called out to the surviving Americans to search the prisoners and form them up. There were ninety. Dazed, Early staggered up to him: “York, I’m shot, and shot bad. What’ll I do?” York told Donohue to help Early and sent them to the rear of the column. Cutting said he was badly hurt also; York saw that all the buttons on his uniform had been shot off and his helmet had been hit. He told him to go back, too.
The prisoners were formed in column by twos. York assigned the remaining privates to positions on either side. He asked the major to tell the Germans York would shoot him and anyone else who tried anything foolish. Then he asked the best. way back to the American lines. When the major suggested a path by the base of the slope, York cannily started the column out in the opposite direction.
With the major in front of him and two other officers behind, York led the group through the German lines. As they left the scene of the fight, the corporal passed the body of Murray Savage. “I had to leave him there. I didn’t dare to take my eye off the mob of prisoners.”
As they all trudged along, the major, who had apparently overheard one of the Americans worrying about getting back with so many prisoners, asked the corporal, “How many men have you got?” “Plenty,” bluffed York, jabbing the major in the back with his pistol. “You should have seen the major move on down that hill whenever I pulled down on him with that old Colt. ‘Goose-step it,’ I think they called it. He was so little! His back was so straight! And all huffed up over the way he had to mind me.”
As they wound their way back, the Americans flushed other machine-gun nests. York would push the major out in front of the column and get him to call the Germans to surrender. All but one did. York had the major twice order the reluctant German to give up. When he didn’t, York shot him. “I hated to do it.… He was probably a brave soldier boy. But I couldn’t afford to take any chance, and so I had to let him have it.”
On the other side of the hill, the column heard the challenge: “Halt!” Doughboys, their rifles at the ready, had advanced onto the hill. York jumped in front of the prisoners to show his uniform. The patrol was safe at last.
As York and his long column passed into American territory, a lieutenant counted the prisoners—132. Word spread quickly that York had “captured the whole damned German army. ” More important, the silencing of the machine guns had enabled the division to seize the railroad.