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.”
Pershing called him “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I. Foch described his exploit in the Argonne as “the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”
And in many ways, Alvin Cullum York did seem the perfect hero: a tall, lean, red-haired man with blue-gray eyes, a crackerjack marksman whose faith made him totally fearless. Yet in other ways he seemed the least likely of heroes—a barely literate pacifist and a conscientious objector. His home was a log cabin in the tiny Cumberland mountain village of Pall Mall, Tennessee, in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River, close by what is now the southwestern tip of Daniel Boone National Forest.
Boone was a well-known figure to the young York. “Mountain people are not great readers,” he told a biographer. “But we’re most all good storytellers.… I guess what outsiders call history is just plain storytelling with us.”
They were not great readers because school was open fewer than three months each year, and there was only one teacher for the hundred children crammed into the one-room school- house. What with helping out on the family farm, York attended only three weeks each summer for five years and later he figured he had the equivalent of no better than a third-grade education. It was not until he was twenty that he read his first book, a biography of Frank and Jesse James.
Alvin was the third of eight sons and three daughters born to William and Mary York. His father was a blacksmith whose shop was in the very cave in which Alvin’s great-great-grandfather, Conrad Pile, had lived when he first settled Pall Mall early in the nineteenth century. Conrad Pile was almost as famous in the mountains as Daniel Boone himself, a Long Hunter who, by the time he died in 1849 at the age of eighty-three, owned slaves and held title to land stretching as far as Jamestown, nine miles away.
During the Civil War, the Tennessee mountains were a no man’s land of bitter guerrilla fighting. Both of Alvin’s grandfathers were killed; one, a Mexican War veteran, died of exposure fleeing Confederates; the other was lynched by Northern sympathizers.
By the time Alvin was born on December 13, 1887, the family’s fortunes had dwindled. The cabin his father had built, its walls papered with newspapers and old catalogue pages, was, said a later visitor, “painted by Poverty.” Surrounding it were seventy-five acres of scrubby soil on which the Yorks raised chickens and hogs, kept a few cows, and grew corn. But there was barely enough to sustain them; this, after all, was the country which Cor- dell Hull—who hailed from the same region—described as offering its inhabitants two incentives: “pure air and starvation.” York’s mother hired out to do chores for other households for twenty-five cents a day. When Alvin did start school, he went off in a homemade linsey dress. He didn’t wear store-bought shoes until he was sixteen, and then only on Sundays. By then he was six feet tall and still growing.
From the time he was six, Alvin worked the fields with his father; later he learned to operate the smithy. William York had one great failing—he often neglected his work to go hunting. Alvin loved to tag along.
William York was “a most wonderful shot,” according to his son. “The best shot in the mountains.” He was so good that when neighbors got together for Saturday shooting matches, they often picked him to be judge rather than compete against him. And the neighbors could shoot, too: calipers were often needed to determine the winning bullet closest to dead center of the target.
There were turkey shoots, as well—some at a range of 150 yards, with the turkey in full view, tied to a stake; others with the turkev 40 yards awav but tied behind a log so that only its bobbing head was visible. The men used “hog rifles”—old muzzle-loaders, some fashioned by their pioneer ancestors. They could reload quickly; a few could even do it on the run. They knew all the ways their aim could be affected by wind, sunlight, and humidity.
As he grew up, Alvin earned the reputation of being an even better shot than his father. Even after the war he would prefer his father’s old cap-and-ball muzzle-loader to any high-powered Army rifle. He said it just didn’t know how to miss.
When William York died of typhoid fever in 1911, Alvin, whose two older brothers had married and moved away, found himself head of the household. In summers he hired out, working a neighbor’s farm “from can’t see to can’t see”; in winters he hauled merchandise over the rutted dirt roads. But his wages and the money won in bets in shooting matches were quickly wasted.
Strung along Tennessee’s border with Kentucky were “blind tigers”—illegal drinking shacks that literally straddled the state line. If you were from Tennessee you went to the Kentucky side of the hut to buy liquor and avoid arrest; Kentucky sports stepped over into Tennessee. Together with friends and some of his brothers, Alvin spent weekends carousing. Corn whisky was their chief drink, and it was potent. “I was most always spoiling for a fight,” Alvin admitted later. He took to carrying a revolver and a knife, and the one book he had read had left a “big impression.” To emulate the James boys, he practiced shooting from a galloping mule, tossing the gun from hand to hand, and pumping bullet after bullet into the same spot on a tree.
His devout, hard-working mother despaired. She’d wait up for him at night, embrace him when he came home, and, shaking her head, would weep, unable to “bear to think of where I would go if I died or was killed.”
Alvin occasionally tried to mend his ways, but the turning point came when a “saddlebagger,” a traveling preacher, rode into Pall Mall and began holding nightly revivals at the little Wolf River church. Alvin started attending; he listened and prayed, asking God to forgive his sins and to guide him. “And He did.” On January 1, 1915, York forswore “smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing, and brawling.” He kept that pledge for the rest of his life.
York joined the preacher’s Church of Christ in Christian Union, taught Sunday school, led the choir, and began courting his fellow church member, Grace Williams. Before long he was the church’s Second Elder. Looking back on his conversion long afterward, he called it “the greatest victory I ever won.”
It was, however, a triumph that precipitated another crisis of conscience. When the United States joined in the war in Europe, York did not want to serve. “I had had fighting and quarreling myself. I had found it bad. … I just wanted to be left alone to live in peace and love.”
Summoned by mail to register, York was in turmoil. He had accepted the Bible as God’s inspired word, and the Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill.”
“That was so definite a child could understand it,” he said.
He began walking the mountains at night, praying for guidance. “I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American too. I had always figured the two were sort of connected. And now I was beginning to find out that they were … opposed to each other.”
He talked the dilemma over with Rosier Pile, a cousin who ran the ramshackle store and post office in Pall Mall and was both the local draft registrar and the pastor of York’s church. They agreed the Sixth Commandment took priority.
Accordingly, York claimed exemption when he officially registered, writing, “I don’t want to fight,” on his form and declaring that his church forbade participation in the war. The local board refused to discharge him, on the grounds that the Church of Christ in Christian Union was not a “well-recognized” sect. York appealed the decision to the district draft board in Nashville. It turned him down. He appealed once more. Again he was rejected.
On October 28, 1917, York was summoned to the local board for a physical examination (he measured six foot two and weighed 170 pounds) and on November 14, a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, he was ordered to report immediately for duty at Camp Gordon, outside Atlanta, Georgia. “I just went to that old camp and said nothing. I did everything I was told to … but I was sick at heart just the same.”
York was assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division—the All-American Division, a newly created fighting force whose officers and men represented virtually every state in the Union. It was a severe cultural jolt for York. “They put me by some Greeks and Italians to sleep. ” His outfit was a volatile assortment of bartenders and actors, ice men and farmers, bouncers and millworkers—”a gang of the toughest and most hard-boiled doughboys I ever heard of. … They could out-swear, out-drink, and out-cuss any other crowd of men I have ever knowed.”
They soon found out York was a conscientious objector “and they hadn’t much use for that.” When they teased him, he scrupulously avoided arguing or getting angry. Most of the time, though, they left him alone. He had only one friend, his bunkmate, Corporal Murray Savage, who read the Bible with him.
The draftees were eager to get into action, but their performance on the rifle range made York wonder how effective they would be. “[These] Greeks and Italians and Poles and New York Jews and some of the boys from the big cities hadn’t been used to handling guns. … They missed everything but the sky.” York did better. The Army targets, he said, “were so much bigger than turkeys’ heads. And an Army bull’s-eye is about a million times bigger than a criss-cross cut with a sharp knife on … a tree.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.