Sergeant York

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In 1939, as World War II approached, he said he saw no need to “get tangled up with any foreign row. ” Axis ambitions changed his mind, and by June of 1941 he was warning that “liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to keep them.” Finally persuaded that it was his patriotic duty, he consented that year to being portrayed in a movie. Sergeant York , with Gary Cooper in the starring role, was filmed on York’s own property in Pall Mall. It won the actor an Academy Award.

On April 27, 1942, York, by now a graying fifty-four-year-old suffering with arthritis, appeared once more at cousin Rosier Pile’s store to register for the draft. This time he was too old to see active duty, although he offered to raise a battalion from the five thousand Tennessee boys who had been rejected because they were illiterate. “They are crack shots,” he declared. The Army did commission York a major with the idea that he would help train infantry, but apparently ill health curtailed his activities.

York’s last battle was with the Internal Revenue Service. In 1961 the 1RS sued him for back taxes it said he owed from income received for the movie biography. York had reported the royalties as capital gains, and apparently some, if not all of it, went to charity. The government insisted the money had been taxable at a higher rate as ordinary income. It claimed that York—who had suffered a series of strokes and was now partially paralyzed, bedridden, and almost completely blind—owed $85,442 plus an additional $87,155 in accumulated interest.

The IRS offered to settle the debt for $25,000 because “it appears to be in excess of the sum collectible from a forced sale of all” of York’s assets. Those assets consisted of $25 in cash (including $2.20 in a checking account), and miscellaneous property worth $30,000—including the York home and farm, furniture, “mostly worn-out” farm machinery, fifty head of cattle, and a 1957 car, which had been especially fitted to carry his wheelchair and had been donated to York by the 82nd Airborne Division, successor to his old unit. In turn, York’s debts were $2,700 in doctor’s bills, $5,300 in mortgage payments, $762 in back real estate taxes, and $600 in notes and small accounts. The old soldier’s taxable income in 1959, the 1RS noted, amounted to $4,190.97. In addition, York received each month a veteran’s pension of $135, plus $38 in Social Security and $10 as a Medal of Honor holder.

When news of York’s plight became public, House Speaker Sam Rayburn launched a campaign to raise the money by public subscription. In all, Americans chipped in almost $50,000, enough to pay off the tax debt and to establish a trust fund. In addition, the financier S. Hallock du Pont set up another trust fund to provide York with $300 a month for the rest of his life.

Late in August, 1964, York entered the Veterans Administration Hospital in Nashville, suffering from an internal infection. He died there on September 2, age seventy-six.

York was buried in the Wolf River Cemetery, near the home he built—where his wife, now eighty-one, still lives—and within view of the church where he had been converted in 1915. A flag flies over his grave all year round. On Memorial Day each year, a wreath is placed there, and on Armistice Day there is a parade in his honor and sometimes veterans of the old 82nd come to pay tribute. The grave is marked by a stone monument on which are carved two books—a Bible and a textbook.