On this day in 1918, Corporal Alvin C. York kills over 20 German soldiers
and captures an additional 132 in the Argonne Forest in France as part
of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, earning him the Medal of Honor.
York and his unit were given the task of seizing German positions
across a valley; after encountering difficulties, the small group of 17
soldiers was fired upon by a German machine-gun nest at the top of a nearby hill. The gunners cut down nine men, including a superior officer, leaving York in charge.
As York wrote in his diary: “Those machine guns were spitting fire and
cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. I didn’t
have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even
have time to kneel or lie down. In order to sight me or to swing their
machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the
trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. All the time I
kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I
had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
York’s soldiers followed his lead and began firing; as they drew
closer, the German commander, thinking he had underestimated the size of
the enemy, surrendered his garrison of some 90 men. On the way back to
the Allied lines, York and his squad took more prisoners, for a total of
132. In April 1919, York was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lauded by The New York Times as “the war’s biggest hero” and by General
John J. Pershing as “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I, York
went on to found a school for underprivileged children, the York
Industrial Institute (now Alvin C. York Institute), in rural Tennessee.
In 1941, his heroism became the basis for a movie, Sergeant York,
starring Gary Cooper. Upon York’s death in 1964, U.S. President Johnson
called him “a symbol of American courage and sacrifice” who epitomized
“the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf