Today is an exact date in U.S. military history, and one that launched an unknown American soldier into being the most famous soldier of the millions who fought in The Great War, aka WW I.
Last Saturday, I wrote of the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive led by Gen. Pershing with 23 U.S. infantry divisions and four French divisions. It continued right up to Nov. 11, which became known to history as Armistice, or the day Germany threw in the surrender towel.
The 82nd Infantry Division was one of the U.S. divisions participating in the offensive. One unit in the 82nd was the 328th Infantry Regiment, and in Company G was an unknown Army corporal from Tennessee.
He’d been born high in the Tennessee hill country, near the Kentucky line, and had a hard upbringing. When the U.S. entered WW I he was a farmer trying to grow crops in hard, rocky soil, to little avail. When he got his draft notice he couldn’t read it, and took it to the local storekeeper to read to him.
He wanted nothing to do with the Army, and declared he was a conscientious observer and would not serve. The kindly storekeeper reasoned with him and talked him into going so he would not be arrested.
His name, for those who haven’t guessed it by now, was Alvin York. When I ask the question during a tour at the National WW I Museum and Memorial, “Who was the most highly decorated American soldier in WW I?” the answer is almost always Alvin York. I’ve got to start taking a buzzer in my pocket that makes a noise like on TV quiz shows when an answer is incorrect.
I’ll certainly not argue that York was the most famous soldier of any army in WW I, but he was not the most highly decorated.
He is famous today for the deeds he did on Oct. 8, 1918, 98 years ago today, when he and 16 other men were carrying out an order to seize German positions. No one knew exactly how many Germans held the ground, but York and his men quickly found out.
Soon after they began their mission they were fired on by German machine guns, and the patrol leader and nine others were killed or wounded. That left Corp. York in charge, and as the old Army saying goes, “When in charge, take charge.” And this he did.
Using his famed Tennessee sharpshooting skills, he killed 25 Germans, and due to the accuracy and volume of his fire, the German lieutenant in command decided he’d underestimated the size of the attacking Americans and surrendered the rest of his 90 men. Bad decision.
As the few Americans began marching the Germans toward Allied lines, other German soldiers joined the group, so when Allied lines were reached there were 132 German prisoners. It was a feat unequalled in anyone’s memory.
York was immediately promoted to sergeant, and in short order was awarded the Medal of Honor, one of 119 recipients of the two million men who served in France in WW I.
I never met York, but have met both his sons and a grandson when they were visiting the National WW I Museum and Memorial. The family runs the York Museum in Pall Mall, Tennessee, which is high on my list of places to visit pretty soon.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.