- 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 next day, York reported back to Danforth and asked if he could return to the scene of his exploit. “I had been doing a heap of thinking about the boys we had left behind in the fight. There was just a chance that some of them might be only wounded and still lying out there in pain and need help something terrible.”
Danforth let York go back with two stretcher-bearers. “The ground in front and on both sides of where we… stood was all soft and torned up with bullets. The brush on either side was all torned up and there was a sort of tunnel cut in the brush behind me. Everything destroyed, torned up, killed—trees, grass, men.” A salvage corps had already been over the area, but York and the bearers yelled, thinking one of the wounded might still be in the bushes. No one answered.
“All was terribly quiet in the field.… Oh, my, it seemed so unbelievable. I would never see them again. … I could only pray for their souls. And I done that. I prayed for the Greeks and Italians and the Poles and the Jews and the others. I…prayed for the Germans, too. They were all brother men of mine. …”
The closest York came to getting killed, he said, was four days after his famous exploit, when German shells pounded an apple orchard. York’s unit was feverishly digging foxholes as the men heard the shells edging closer. “And then bang!—one of the big shells struck the ground right in front of us and we all went up in the air. But we all come down again.”
York was showered with honors—the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre with palms, the French Legion of Honor, the Croce di Guerra of Italy, the War Medal of Montenegro, and ultimately, the Congressional Medal of Honor in March of 1919. This flurry of tribute brought protests from some men of the 328th who felt Sergeant Bernard Early and other members of the patrol deserved credit, too.
On the eve of York’s’ return to America in late May of that year, Major General George B. Duncan, the commander of the 82nd Division, answered the critics: “The more we investigated the exploit, the more remarkable it appeared.” York, he added, “is one of the bravest of men and entitled to all the honor that may be given to him.”
The Army inquiry had taken several months to complete and included the taking of statements from six of the seven privates who survived unharmed, as well as from York and Sergeants Early and Harry Parsons.
When York’s ship docked in New York on May 22, 1919, the city gave him a ticker-tape parade unequaled in enthusiasm until Lindbergh’s. When he appeared at the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, the brokers stopped trading to carry him on their shoulders.
He was deluged with offers—to make a movie, write his life story, tour theaters—but, as he put it, “I … felt that to take money like that would be commercializing my uniform and my soldiering.” While being praised at a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, all he could think of, he said, was his mother, their log-cabin home, and the teen-aged girl he had been courting before he was drafted. He did have one request of New York City: he wanted to take a ride on the subway.
On his return home, the Tennessee Legislature made him an honorary colonel and awarded him 385 acres in the Valley of the Three Forks. On June 7, 1919, he wed Grace Williams on the mountain ledge where they used to sit and talk together. The governor officiated. The couple had been invited to take a nationwide honeymoon tour under the auspices of the National Rotary Clubs but at the last minute York demurred, saying such a trip was “merely a vainglorious call of the world and the devil.” He said he believed he could “serve God best” by staying home. And once there, he returned to farming, hunting, and teaching Sunday school.
The very mountains he loved, York realized, had kept progress out of his community. He dedicated himself to bringing schools, libraries, good roads, up-to-date housing, and modern farming to the area. He established a nondenominational Bible school and for several years toured as a lecturer to raise funds for the Alvin C. York Industrial Institute in Jamestown. He got the state and county as well as private sources to donate land and money for the school and was president of it until 1936. It still exists as a state-run vocational high school, attended by nearly seven hundred mountain boys and girls. And the road through Pall Mall and Jamestown, Route 127, is now paved. It is called the York Highway.
It became a political must for Tennessee politicians to be photographed with York, and in 1936 the Prohibition party nominated him to run for the Vice Presidency. Though always an ardent dry, he declined.