I’ve been wanting to start a regular feature called “Hero of the week” and I guess this will be my first.
My idea for this feature is fuzzier than a flimsy flyer stapled to a billboard, but damn if I haven’t learned in life that he who hesitates usually watches the hot broad leave the bar with someone else. So, here be-ith the first one.
Without question, the first hero I wanted to write up was Sgt. Alvin York, of World War I fame.
He was a fellow Tennessee boy, who had nine months of elementary schooling before his father yanked him out so he could hunt and help feed the family.
York helped raise his six younger brothers and two sisters after his father died, but I’m getting sidetracked here. Nobody cares what he did before he carried a rifle.
And it’s with a rifle that he distinguished himself. The man could flat shoot his ass off. And it was with these skills that the uneducated, backwoods mountain man introduced himself to the battle-hardened, German soldiers.
York’s unit entered a shitstorm on Oct. 8 , 1918. Like so many units before it, York’s superiors ordered the men from Company G, 2d Battalion, 328th Infantry, to advance across open ground toward dug-in Germans, who lay quite safe under the protection of machine guns, parapets, and strands of barbed wire.
York’s unit moved out at 6:10 a.m. and the Krauts mauled them with ease.
“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart,” York said. “They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from…And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”
York’s platoon alone lost most of its men, including its three NCOs. That’s when York — then a Corporal — faced that moment of truth that would change his life forever.
Only seven men remained from his infantry company and prudence suggested a retreat might make sense. But they don’t breed caution in Tennessee, and proud fathers — no matter how poor — certainly don’t teach their boys to back down. pl. York took charge and led the seven men onward.
He snaked and squirmed and slid forward until he could draw a bead on a particularly deadly machine gun nest.
“As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. I don’t think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss…”
York also had to hit all of his shots when six Germans charged him with bayonets. His rifle empty, York yanked his .45 pistol out and shot down all six Germans. (I like to think he paused and blew smoke from the barrel after this feat, but with so many rounds flying and so much death around him, I’m guessing he didn’t.)
In the end, York and his seven men captured the major machine-gun nest and took four officers and 128 men prisoner, according to military records.
The Army promoted Cpl. York to Sgt. for his bravery and presented him with the Medal of Honor.
Stan R. Mitchell
Oak Ridge, Tenn.
P.S. Director Howard Hawks produced a movie about York that featured Gary Cooper. It’s a great flick you should catch sometime if you’ve never seen it.