Today in Twice Told Tuesday Shades retells the tale of an American Hero, Sergeant Alvin York of Tennessee. A most poignant memory for a poignant day in America's history. God Bless our Veterans and God Bless America!
The story of how Sergeant York, single-handed, with his rifle, facing a battalion of German machine gunners at a distance of forty yards, compelled 132 to surrender "The Greatest Thing Accomplished by Any Private Soldier of All the Armies of Europe." — Marshall Foch
Samuel K. Cowan
From a cabin back in the mountains of Tennessee, forty-five miles from the railroad, a young man went to the World War. He was untutored in the ways of the world. His ancestors were cane-cutters and Indian fighters. Their lives were rich in the romance of adventure. They were men of strong hale and gentle love. His people have lived in the simplicity of the pioneer. This is more the tale of the making of a man than a war story. His ancestors were able to leave him but one legacy — an idea of American manhood. In the period that has elapsed since he came down from the mountains he has done three things — and any one of them would have marked him for distinction.
JUST to the north of Chatel-Chehary in the Argonne Forest in France is a hill which was known to the American soldiers as "Hill No. 223." Fronting its high wooded knoll, on the way to Germany, are three more hills. The one in the center is rugged. Those to the right and left are more sloping, and the one to the left — which the people of France have named "York's Hill" — turns a shoulder toward Hill No. 223. The valley which they form is only from two to three hundred yards wide. Early in the morning of the eighth of October, 1918, as a floating gray mist relaxed its last hold on the tops of the trees on the sides of those hills, the "All America" Division — the Eighty-Second — poured over the crest of No. 223. Prussian Guards were on the ridge-tops across the valley, and behind the Germans ran the Decauville Railroad — the artery for supplies to a salient still further to the north which the Germans were striving desperately to hold. The second phase of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne was on.
As the fog rose the Americans "jumped off" down the wooded slope and the Germans opened fire from three directions. With artillery they pounded the hillside. Machine guns savagely sprayed the trees under which the Americans were moving. At one point, where the hill makes a steep descent, the American line seemed to fade away as it attempted to pass. This slope, it was found, was being swept by machine guns on the crest of the hill to the left which faced down the valley. The Germans were hastily" planting" other machine guns there.
The Americans showered that hill top with bullets, but the Germans were entrenched. The sun had now melted the mist and the sky was cloudless. From their pits the Germans could see the Americans working their way through the timber. To find a place from which the Boche could be knocked away from those death-dealing machine guns and to stop the digging of "fox holes" for new nests, a non-commissioned officer and sixteen men went out from the American line. All of them were expert rifle shots who came from the support platoon of the assault troops on the left. Using the forest's undergrowth to shield them, they passed unharmed through the bullet-swept belt which the Germans were throwing around Hill No. 223, and reached the valley. Above them was a canopy of lead. To the north they heard the heavy cannonading of that part of the battle. When they passed into the valley they found they were within the range of another battalion of German machine guns. The Germans on the hill at the far end of the valley were lashing the base of No. 223.
For their own protection against the bullets that came with the whip of a wasp through the tree tops, the detachment went boldly up the enemy's hill before them. On the hillside they came to an old trench, which had been used in an earlier battle of the war. They dropped into it. Moving cautiously, stopping to get their bearings from the sounds of the guns above them, they walked the trench in Indian file. It led to the left, around the shoulder of the hill, and into a deep dip of a valley in the rear. Germans were on the hilltop across that valley. But the daring of the Americans protected them.
The Germans were guarding the valleys and the passes, and they were not looking for enemy in the shadow of the barrels of German guns. As the trench now led down the hill, carrying the Americans away from the gunners they sought, the detachment came out of it and took skirmish formation in the dense and tangled bushes.
They had gone but a short distance when they stepped upon a forest path. Just below them were two Germans, with Red Cross bands upon their arms. At the sight of the Americans, the Germans dropped their stretcher, turned and fled around a curve. The sound of the shots fired after them was lost in the clatter of the machine guns above. One of the Germans fell, but regained his feet, and both disappeared in the shrubs to the right. It was kill or capture those Germans to prevent exposure of the position of the invaders, and the Americans went after them.
They turned off the path where they saw the stretcher bearers leave it, darted through the underbrush, dodged trees and stumps and bushes. Jumping through the shrubs and reeds on the bank of a small branch, the Americans in the lead landed in a group of about twenty of the enemy. The Germans sprang to their feet in surprise. They were behind their own line of battle. Officers were holding a conference with a major. Private soldiers, in groups, were chatting and eating. They were before a little shack that was a German major's headquarters, and from it stretched telephone wires.
The Germans were not set for a fight. Out from the brushwood and off the bank across the stream, one after another, came the Americans. It bewildered the Germans. They did not know the number of the enemy that had come upon them. As each of the "Buddies" landed, he sensed the situation, and prepared for an attack from any angle. Some of them fired at German soldiers whom they saw reaching for their guns. All threw up their hands, with the cry, "Kamerad!" when the Americans opened fire.
Around their prisoners the Americans formed in a semicircle as they forced them to disarm. At the left end of this crescent was Alvin York. He was a young six-foot mountaineer, who had come to the war from "The Knobs of Tennessee." He kn;w nothing of military tactics beyond the simple evolutions of the drill. Only a few days . before had he first seen the flash of a hostile gun. But a rifle was as familiar to his hands as one of the fingers upon them. His body was ridged and laced with muscles that had grown to seasoned sinews from swinging a sledge in a blacksmith shop. He had never seen the men or crowd of men of whom he was afraid. He had hunted in the mountains while forked lightning flashed around him. He had heard the thunder crash in mountain coves as loud as the burst of any German, shell. He was of that type into whose brain and heart the qualm of fear never comes.
The Americans were on the downstep of the hill with their prisoners on the higher ground. The major's headquarters had been hidden away in a thicket of young undergrowth, and the Americans could see but a short distance ahead. As the semi-circle formed with Alvin York on the left end, he stepped beyond the edge of the thicket — and what he saw up the hill surprised him. Just forty yards away was the crest, and along it was a row of machine guns — a battalion of them!
The German gunners had heard the shots fired by the Americans in front of the major's shack, or they had been warned by the fleeing stretcher bearers that the enemy was behind them. They were jerking at their guns, rapidly turning them around, for the nests had been masked and the muzzles of the guns pointed down into the valley at the foot of Hill No. 223, to sweep it when the Eighty-Second Division came out into the open. Some of the Germans in the gun pits, using rifles, shot at York. The bullets "burned his face as they passed."
He cried a warning to his comrades which evidently was not heard, for when he began to shoot up the hill they called to him to stop as the Germans had surrendered. They saw only the prisoners before them. Bushes hid the menacing German guns. There was no time for parley. York's second cry, "Look out!" could carry no explanation of the danger to those whose view was blinded by the thicket. The Germans had their guns turned. Hell and death were being belched down the hillside upon the Americans. At the opening rattle of these guns, the German prisoners, as if through a prearranged signal, fell flat to the ground, and the streams of lead -passed over them.
Some of the Americans, prevented by the thicket from seeing that an attack was to be made upon them, hearing the guns, instinctively followed the lead of the Germans. But the onslaught came with such suddenness that those in the line of fire had no chance. The first sweep of the guns killed six and wounded three of the Americans. Death leaped through the bushes and claimed Corporal Murray Savage, Privates Maryan Dymow- ski, Ralph Weiler, Fred Ware- ing, William Wine and Carl Swanson. Crumpled to the ground, wounded, were Sergeant Bernard Early, who had been in command; Corporal William B. Cutting and Private Mario Muzzi. York, to escape the guns he saw sweeping toward him, dived to the ground between two shrubs. The fire of other machine guns was added to those already in action and streams of lead continued to pour through the thicket. But the toll of the dead and wounded of the Americans had been taken.
The Germans kept their own line of fire about waist high so they would not kill their own men, some of whom they could see groveling on the ground. York had seen the murder of his pals in the first onset. He heard someone say, "Let's get out of here; we are in the enemy line!" Then, all had been silence on the American side. German prisoners lay on the ground before him, in view of the gunners on the hilltop. York edged around until he had a clear view of the gun pits above him. The stalks of weeds and undergrowth were around him. There came a lull in the machine-gun fire.
Several Germans arose as though to come out of their pits and down the hill to see the battle's result. But on the American side the battle was just begun. York, from the brushes at the end of the thicket, "let fly." One of the Germans sprang upward, and waved his arms above him as he began his flight into eternity. The others dropped back into their holes, and there was another clatter of machine guns and again the bullets slashed across the thicket. But there was silence on the American side. York waited. More cautiously, German heads began to rise above their pits. York moved his rifle deliberately along the line, knocking back those heads that were the more venturesome. The American rifle shoots five times, and a clip was gone before the Germans realized that the fire upon them was coming from one point. They centered on that - point.
Around York the ground was torn up. Mud from the ploughing bullets besmirched him. The brush was mowed away above and on either side of him, and leaves and twigs were falling over him. But they could only shoot at him. They were given no chance to take deliberate aim. As they turned the clumsy barrel of a machine gun down at the fire-sparking point on the hillside, a German would raise his head above his pit to sight it. Instantly backward along that German machine-gun barrel would come an American bullet — crashing into the head of the Boche who manned the gun. The prisoners on the ground squirmed under the fire that was passing over them. Their bodies were in a tortuous motion. But York held them there; it made the gunners keep their fire high.
Every shot York made was carefully placed. As a hunter stops in the forest and gazes straight ahead, his mind receptive to the slightest movement of a squirrel or the rustle of leaves in any of the trees before him. So this Tennessee mountaineer faced and fought that line of blazing machine guns on the ridge of the hill before him. His mind was sensitive to the point in the line that at that instant threatened a real danger, and instinctively he turned to it.
Down the row of prisoners on the ground he saw the German major with a pistol in his hand, and he made the officer throw the gun to him. Later its magazine was found to have been emptied. He noted that after he shot at a gun pit there was a break in the line of flame at that point, and an interval would pass before that gun would again be manned and become a source of danger to him. He also realized that where there was a sudden break of ten or fifteen feet in the line of flame, and the trunk of a tree rose within that space, that soon a German gun and helmet would come peeking around the tree's trunk.
A rifleman would try for him where the machine guns failed. In the mountains of Tennessee Alvin York had won fame as one of the best shots with both rifle and pistol that those mountains had ever held, and his imperturbability was as noted as the keenness of his sight. In mountain shooting matches at a range of forty yards — just the distance the row of German guns were from him — he would put ten rifle bullets into a space no larger than a man's thumb nail. Since a boy he had been shooting with a rifle at the bobbing heads of turkeys that had been tethered behind a log so that only the head would show.
German heads and German helmets loomed large before him. A battalion of machine guns is a military unit organized to give battle to a regiment of infantry. Yet, one man, a representative of America on that hillside on that' October morning, broke the morale of a battalion of machine gunners made up from members of Germany's famous Prussian Guards. Down in the brush below the Prussians was a human machine gun they could not hit, and the penalty was death to try to locate him. As York fought, there was a prayer upon his lips. He was an elder in a little church back in the "Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf" in the mountains of Tennessee. He prayed to God to spare him and to have mercy on those he was compelled to kill.
When York shot, and a German soldier fell backward or pitched forward and remained motionless, York would call to them: "Well! Come on down!" It was an earnest command in which there was no spirit of exultation or braggadocio. He was praying for their surrender, so that he might stop killing them. His command, "Come down!" at times, above the firing, was heard in the German pits. They realized they were fighting one man, and could not understand the strange demand.
When the fight began York was lying on the ground. But as the entire line of German guns came into the battle, he raised himself to a sitting position so that his gun would have the sweep of all of them. When the Germans found they could not "get him" with bullets, they tried other tactics. Off to his left, seven Germans, led by a lieutenant, crept through the bushes. When about twenty yards away, they broke for him with lowered bayonets. The clip of York's rifle was nearly empty. He dropped it and took his automatic pistol. So calmly was he master of himself and so complete his vision of the situation that he selected as his first mark among the oncoming Germans the one farthest away. He knew he would not miss the form of a man at that distance. He wanted the rear man to fall first so the others would keep coming at him and not stop in panic when they saw their companions falling, and fire a volley at him. He felt that in such a volley his only danger lay. They kept coming, and fell as he shot.
The foremost man, and the last to topple, did not get ten yards from where he started. Their bodies formed a line down the hillside. York resumed the battle with the machine guns. The German fire had ''eased up" while the bayonet charge was on. The gunners paused to watch the grim struggle below them. The major, from among the prisoners, crawled to York with an offer to order the surrender of the machine gunners. "Do it!" was York's laconic acceptance. But his vigilance did not lessen. To the right a German had crawled nearby.
He arose and hurled a hand grenade. It missed its objective and wounded one of the prisoners. The American rifle swung quickly and the grenade thrower pitched forward with the grunt of a man struck heavily in the stomach pit. The German major blew his whistle.
Out of their gun pits the Germans came — around from behind trees — up from the brush on either side. They were unbuckling cartridge belts and throwing them and their side arms away. York did not move from his position in the bushes. About halfway down the hill, as they came to him, he halted them, and he watched the gun pits for the movement of any one left skulking there. His eye went cautiously over the new prisoners to see that all side arms had been thrown away.
The surrender was genuine. There were about ninety Germans before him with their hands in air. This gave him over a hundred prisoners. He arose and called to his comrades, and several answered him. Some of the responses came from wounded men.
All the Americans had been to York's right throughout the fight. The thicket had prevented them from taking any effective part. They were forced to protect themselves from the whining bullets that came through the brush from unseen guns. They had constantly guarded the prisoners and shielded York from treachery. Seven Americans — Percy Beardsley, Joe Konotski, Thomas G. Johnson, Feodor Sak, Michael A. Sacina, Patrick Donahue and George W. Wills — came to him. Sergeant Early, Corporal Cutting and Private Muzzi, though wounded, were still alive.
He lined the prisoners up "by twos." His own wounded he put at the rear of the column, and forced the Germans to carry those who could not walk. The other Americans he stationed along the column to hold the prisoners in line. Sergeant Early, shot through the body, was too severely wounded to continue in command. York was a corporal, but there was no question of rank, for all turned to him for instructions. The Germans could not take their eyes off of him, and instantly complied with all his orders, given through the major, who spoke English. Stray bullets kept plugging through the branches of the trees around them. For the first time the Americans realized they were under fire from the Germans on the hill back of them, whom they had seen when they came out of the deserted trench. The Germans stationed there could not visualize the strange fight that was taking place behind a line of German machine guns, and they were withholding their fire to protect their own men. They were plugging into the woods with rifles to develop the enemy's position.
To all who doubted the possibility of carrying so many prisoners through the forest, or spoke of reprisal attacks to release them, York's reply was: "Let's get 'em out of here!" The German major looked down the long line of Germans, possibly planning some recoup from the shame and ignominy of the surrender of so many of them, stepped up to York and asked: "How many men have you got?"
The big mountaineer wheeled on him: "I got a-plenty!" And the major seemed convinced that the number of the Americans was immaterial as York thrust his automatic into the major's face and stepped him up to the head of the column. Among the captives were three officers. These York placed around him to lead the prisoners — one on either side and the major immediately before him. In York's right hand swung the automatic pistol with which he had made an impressive demonstration in the fight up the hill. The officers were told that at the first sign of treachery, or for a failure of the men behind to obey a command, the penalty would be their lives; and the major was informed that he would be the first to go. With this formation no German skulking on the hill or in the bushes could fire upon York without endangering the officers. Similar protection was given all of the Americans acting as escort.
Up the hill York started the column. From the topography of the land he knew there were machine guns over the crest that had had no part in the fight. Straight to these nests he marched them. As the column approached, the major was forced by York to command the gunners to surrender.
Only one shot was fired after the march began. At one of the nests a German, seeing so many Germans as prisoners and so few of the enemy to guard them — all of them on the German firing line with machine-gun nests around them — refused to throw down his gun, and showed fight. York did not hesitate. The remainder of that gun's crew took their place in line, and the major promised York there would be no more delays in the surrenders if he would kill no more of them.
As a great serpent the column wound among the trees on the hilltop swallowing the crews of German machine guns. After the ridge had been cleared, four machine-gun nests were found down the hillside. It took all the woodcraft the young mountaineer knew to get to his own command. They had come back over the hilltop and were on the slope of the valley in which the Eighty-Second Division was fighting. They were now in danger from both German and American guns.
York listened to the firing, and knew the Americans had reached the valley — and that some of them had crossed it. Where their line was running he could not determine. He knew if the Americans saw his column of German uniforms they were in danger — captors and captives alike — of being annihilated. At any moment the Germans from the two hilltops down the valley — to check the Eighty-Second Division's advance — might lay a belt of bullets across the course they traveled. Winding around the cleared places and keeping in the thickly timbered section of the hills slope whenever it were possible, York worked his way toward the American line.
In the dense woods the German major made suggestions of a path to take. As York was undecided which one to choose, the major's suggestion made him go the other one. Frequently the muzzle of York's automatic dimpled the major's back and he quickened his step, slowed up, or led the column in the direction indicated to him, without turning his head and without inquiry as to the motive back of a command. Down near the foot of the hill, near the trench they had traveled a short while before, York answered the challenge to "Halt!"
He stepped out so his uniform could be seen, and called to die Americans challenging him, and about to fire on the Germans, that he was "bringing in prisoners." The American line opened for him to pass, and a wild cheer went up from the Doughboys when they saw the column of prisoners. Some of them called to him to inquire if he had the "whole German army." At the foot of the hill in an old dugout an American P. C. had been located, and York turned in his prisoners.
The prisoners were officially counted by Lieut. Joseph A. Woods, Assistant Division Inspector, and there were 132 of them; three of the number were officers and one with the rank of major.
When the Eighty-Second Division passed on, officers of York's regiment visited the scene of the fight, and they counted 25 Germans that he had killed and 35 machine guns that York had not only silenced, but had unmanned, carrying the men back with him as prisoners. When York was given "his receipt for the prisoners," an incident happened that shows the true knightliness and simplicity of character of this untrained mountaineer. It was but a little after ten o'clock in the morning. The Americans had a hard day's fighting ahead of them. Somewhere out in the forest York's own company — Company G — and his own regiment — the 328th Infantry — were fighting. He made inquiry, but no one could direct him to them. He turned to the nearest American officer, saluted and reported, "Ready for duty." What he had done was to him but a part of the work to be done that day.
But York was assigned to the command of his prisoners, to carry them back to a detention camp. The officers were held by the P. C. — for an examination and grilling on the plans of the enemy. Whenever they could, the private soldiers among the prisoners gathered close to York, now looking to him for their personal safety. On the way to the detention camp the column was shelled by German guns from one of the hilltops.
York maneuvered them and put them in double-quick time until they were out of range. Late in the afternoon, back of the three hills that face Hill No. 223, the "All America" Division "cut" the Decauville Railroad that supplied a salient to the north that the Germans were striving desperately to hold. As they swept on to their objective they found the hill to the left of the valley, that turns a shoulder toward No. 223 — which the people of France have named "York's Hill" — cleared of Germans, and on its crest silent and unmanned machine guns. Americans returned and buried on the hillside — beside a thicket, near a shack that had been a German officer's headquarters — six American soldiers.
Major-General George B. Duncan, commander of the Eighty-second Division, and officers of York's regiment knew that history had been made upon that hillside. By personal visits of the regiment's officers to the scene, by measurements, by official count of the silent guns and the silent dead, by affidavits from those who were with York, the record of his achievement was verified. Major-General C. P. Summerall, before the officers of York's regiment, said to him: "Your division commander has reported to me your exceedingly gallant conduct during the operations of your division in the Meuse-Argonne Battle. I desire to express to you my pleasure and commendation for the courage, skill and gallantry which you displayed on that occasion. It is an honor to command such soldiers as you. Your conduct reflects great credit not only upon the American army, but upon the American people. Your deeds will be recorded in the history of this great war and they will live as an inspiration not only to your comrades, but to the generations that will come after us."
General John J. Pershing, in pinning the Congressional Medal of Honor upon him — the highest award for valor the United States Government bestows — called York the greatest civilian soldier of the war. A deed that is done through the natural use of a great talent seems to the doer of the deed the natural thing to have done. A sincere response to appreciation and praise, made by those endowed with real ability, usually comes cloaked in a genuine modesty. His ability to think clearly and quickly, under conditions that tried both heart and brain, was shown in the fight in the Argonne. With eight men, not twenty yards away, charging him with bayonets, he calmly decides to shoot the last man first, and to continue this policy in selecting his mark, so that those remaining would "not see their comrades falling and in panic stop and fire a volley at him."
He wrote in his diary this simple story of his fight with the battalion of German machine guns:
On the 7th day of October we lay in some little holes on the roadside all day. That night we went out and stayed a little while and came back to our holes, the shells bursting all around us. I saw men just blown up by the big German shells which were bursting all around us.
So the order came for us to take Hill 223 and 240 the 8th. So the morning of the 8th, just before daylight, we started for the hill at Chathel-Chehary. Before we got there it got light and the Germans sent over a heavy barrage and also gas and we put on our gas masks and just pressed right on through those shells and got to the top of Hill 223 to where we were to start over at 6:10 A. M.
They were to give a barrage. The time came and no barrage, and we had to go without one. So we started over the top at 6:10 A. M., and the Germans were putting their machine guns to working all over the hill in front of us and on our left and right. I was in support and I could see my pals getting picked off until it almost looked like there was none left.
So 17 of us boys went around on the left flank to see if we couldn't put those guns out of action. So when we went around and fell in behind those guns we first saw two Germans with Red Cross bands on their arms. Some one of the boys shot at them and they ran back to our right.
So we all ran after them, and when we jumped across a little stream of water that was there, there was about 1 5 or 20 Germans jumped up and threw up their hands and said, Comrade. The one in charge of us boys told us not to shoot, they were going to give up anyway.
By this time the Germans from on the hill was shooting at me. Well I was giving them the best I had. the Germans had got their machine guns turned around.
They killed 6 and wounded 3. That just left 8 and then we got into it right. So we had a hard battle for a little while. I got hold of a German major and he told me if I wouldn't kill any more of them he would make them quit firing.
So I told him all right. If he would do it now. So he blew a little whistle and they quit shooting and came down and gave up. I had about eighty or ninety German prisoners there by that time.
They disarmed and we had another line of Germans to go through to get out. So I called for my men and one answered me from behind a big oak tree and the other men were on my right in the brush. So I said, 'Let's get these Germans out of here.' One of my men said, 'It's impossible.' So I said, 'No, let's get them out of here.' "When my men said that this German major said, 'How many have you got?' "And I said, 'I got a plenty,' and pointed my pistol at him all the time.
In this battle I was using a rifle or a 45 Colt automatic pistol. So I lined the Germans up in a line of twos and I got between the ones in front and I had the German major before me. So I marched them right straight into those other machine guns, and I got them. When I got back to my Major's P. C. I had 132 prisoners.
So you can see here in this case of mine where God helped me out. I had been living for God and working in church work some time before I came to the army. I am a witness to the fact that God did help me out of that hard battle, for the bushes were shot off all around me and I never got a scratch. So you can see that God will be with you if you will only trust Him, and I say He did save me.
The report which the officers of the Eighty-second Division made to General Headquarters contained these statements: "The part which Corporal York individually played in this attack (the capture of the Decauville Railroad) is difficult to estimate. Practically unassisted, he captured 132 Germans (three of whom were officers), took about 35 machine guns and killed no less than 25 of the enemy, later found by others on the scene of York's extraordinary exploit.
"The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from Headquarters of this Division and is entirely substantiated." At his home in the "Valley of the Three Forks o' the Wolf," after the war was over, I asked Alvin York how he came to be "Sergeant York." "Well," he said, as he looked earnestly at me, "you know we were in the Argonne Forest twenty-eight days, and had some mighty hard fighting in there. A lot of our boys were killed off. Every company has to have so many sergeants. They needed a sergeant; and they jes' took me."
When he returned to this country to be mustered out of service he had traveled among the soldiers of France the guest of the American Expeditionary Force, so the men in the lines could see the man who single-handed had captured a battalion of machine guns, and he bore the emblems of the highest military honors conferred for valor by the governments composing the Allies.
At New York he was taken from the troopship when it reached harbor, and the spontaneous welcome given him there and at Washington was not surpassed by the prearranged demonstrations for the nation's distinguished foreign visitors. The streets of those cities were lined with people to await his coming and police patrols made way for him. The flaming red of his hair, his young, sunburned, weather-ridged face with its smile and its strength, the worn service cap and uniform, all marked him to the crowds as the man they sought.
On the shoulders of members of the New York StockExchange he was carried to the floor of the Exchange and business was suspended. When he appeared in the gallery of the House of Representatives at Washington the debate was stopped and the members turned to cheer him.
A sergeant in rank, he sat at banquets as the guest of honor with the highest officials of the army and navy and the government on either side. Wherever he went he heard the echo of the valuation which Marshal Foch and General Pershing placed upon his deeds.
Many business propositions were made to him. Some were substantial and others strange, the whimsical offering of enthused admirers. Among them were cool fortunes he could never earn at labor. Taking as a basis the money he was paid for three months on the farm in the summer before he went to France, he would have had to work fifty years to earn the amount he was offered for a six-weeks' theatrical engagement. For the rights to the story of his life a single newspaper was willing to give him the equivalent of thirty-three years. He would have to live to be over three hundred years of age at the old farm wage to earn the sum motion picture companies offered, as a guarantee. He turned all down, and went back to the little worried mother who was waiting for him in a hut in the mountains, to the gazelle-like mountain girl whose blue eyes had haunted the shades of night and the shadows of trees, to the old seventy-five acre farm that clings to one of the sloping sides of a sun-kissed valley in Tennessee.
He refused to capitalize his fame, his achievements that were crowded into a few months in the army of his country. There was one influence that was ever guiding him. The future had to square to the principles of thought and action he had laid down for himself and that he had followed since he knelt, four years before, at a rough-boarded altar in a little church in the "Valley of the Three Forks o' the Wolf," whose belfry had been calling, appealing to him since childhood.
Admiral Albert Cleaves, who commanded the warship convoy for the troopships, himself a Tennessean, made a prediction which came true: "The guns of Argonne and the batteries of welcome of the East were not to be compared to those to be turned loose in York's home state."
The people of Tennessee filled depots, streets and tabernacles to welcome him. Gifts awaited him, which ranged from a four-hundred-acre farm from the Rotary Clubs, to blooded stock for it, and almost every form of household furnishings that could add to man's comfort. It took a wareroom at Nashville and the courtesies of the barns on the State Fair Association to hold the gifts.
He was made a Colonel by the Governor of the state, and appointed a member of his staff. He was elected to honorary membership in many organizations. As far away as Spokane the "Red Headed Club" thought him worthy of their membership "by virtue of the color of his hair and in recognition of his services to this, our glorious country."
The nations of Europe for whom he fought had not forgotten nor had they ceased to honor him. After he had returned to the mountains of Tennessee, another citation came from the French Government for a military award that had been made him, and in a ceremony at the capital of Tennessee the Italian Government conferred upon him the Italian Cross of War.
Across the spring branch, up the mountainside, in a clump of honeysuckle and roses and apple trees, is the York home. It is a two-room cabin. The boxing is of rough boards, as are the unplaned, narrow strips of batting covering the cracks. There is a chimney at one end and in one room is a fireplace. The kitchen is a "lean- to," and the only porch is on the rear, the width of the kitchen-dining room. The porch is for service and work, railed partly with a board for a shelf, which holds the water bucket, the tin wash basin and burdens brought in from the farm.
Alvin York came from a line of ancestors who were cane cutters and Indian fighters. The earliest ancestor of whom he has knowledge was a "Long Hunter,'' who with a rifle upon his shoulder, strode into the Valley of the Wolf and homesteaded the river bottom lands. Here his people lived far from the traveled paths. Marooned in their mountain fastness, they clung to the customs and the traditions of the past. Their life was simple, and their sports quaint. They held shooting matches on the mountainside, enjoyed "log rollings" and "corn huskings."
Strong in their loves and in their hates, they feared God, but feared no man. The Civil War swept over the valley and left splotches of blood. Friends of Sergeant York, knowing that the history of his people was rich in story, and that the public was waiting, wanting to know more of the man the German army could not run, nor make surrender — and instead had to come to him — urged that his story be told.
He had been mustered out of the army and come back to the valley, wanting to pick up again the dropped thread of his former life. He was striving earnestly and prayerfully to blot from recurrent memory that October morning scene or "York's Hill" in France. His friends and neighbors at Pall Mall waited eagerly for his return. They wanted to hear from his own lips the story of his fight. No man of the mountains was ever given the homecoming that was his. It was made the reunion of the people, with the neighbors the component parte of one great family.
When home again, Alvin wanted no especial deference shown him. He wished to be again just one of them, to swing himself upon the counter at the general store and talk with them as of old. He had much to tell from his experience, but always it was of other incidents than the one that made him famous. Months passed. He lived in that mountain cabin with his little mother, whose counsel has ever influenced him, and yet not once did he mention to her that he had a fight in the Forest of Argonne.
His consent was gained for the publication of the story of his people, but it was with the pronounced stipulation that "it be told right." Weeks afterward — for I had gone to live awhile among his people — the two of us were sitting upon the rugged rock-facing to the cliff above the York spring, talking about the fight in France. He told it hesitatingly, modestly. Some of the parts was simply the confirmation of assembled data; much of it, denial of published rumor and conjecture — before the story came out as a whole.
I asked the meaning of his statement that he would not "mind the publication if the story were done right." "Well," he said with his mountain drawl, "I don't want you bearing down too much on that killing part. Tell it without so much of that!"
A rock was picked up and hurled down the mountain. I then understood why the little mother was "jes a-waiting till Alvin gits ready to talk." I understood why the son did not wish to be the one to bring into his mother's mind the picture of that hour in France when men were falling before his gun. I saw the reason he had for always courteously avoiding talking of the scene with any one.
"But," and he turned with, that smile that wins him friends, "I just can't help chuckling at that German major. I sure had him bluffed." According to the code of mountain conversation, there followed a silence. Another rock bounced off the sapling down the cliff.
"You should have seen that major," he resumed, "move on down that hill whenever I pulled down on him with that old Colt. 'Goose-step it,' I think they call it. He was so little! His back so straight! And all huffed up over the way he had to mind me."
I had watched the rocks as they went down the cliff and it seemed nearly every one of them bounced off the same limb. I commented on the accuracy of his eye. "Aw! I wasn't throwing at that sapling, but at — that — leaf." He straightened up and threw more carefully; and the leaf floated down to the waters of the York spring. Down by the spring I met the little mother bringing a tin bucket to the stone milk-house which nature had built. Her slender, drooping figure, capped by the sun- bonnet she always wore, reached just to the shoulder of her son, as he placed his arm protectingly about her. I asked if she were not proud of that boy of hers.
"Yes," she answered, with pride in every line of her sweet, wrinkled face, "I am proud of all of them — all of my eight boys!"
Cowan, Samuel K. Sergeant York's Brave Deed in the Argonne. McClure's Magazine.By Cairns Collection of American Women Writers. New York: S. S. McClure, Limited, 1922.