The celebrity war hero of 1919: The search for Sergeant York and his famous WWI diary

Alvin York's actions in WWI made him a hero. His diary showed America what modern war was really like

Published October 7, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

1919 photo of Sgt. Alvin York of the U.S. Army. (AP/Department of U.S. Army)
1919 photo of Sgt. Alvin York of the U.S. Army. (AP/Department of U.S. Army)

Excerpted from "Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary" by Alvin York, Gerald E. York, George E. York, and Tom Skeyhill. Copyright 2018 by Racehorse Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Alvin York, or "Sergeant York," was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, in 1887. He was drafted into the army and swiftly became one of the most decorated and accomplished soldiers in World War I, having received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, among other notable accolades. When he returned from the war, he was greeted with public outpouring and celebration, largely due in part to an article in the Saturday Evening Post that had circulated prior to his arrival, which detailed York's heroic actions publicly to a large readership. York passed away in 1964 at the age of 76.

* * *

I first saw Sergeant Alvin C. York in New York City the day he returned from France in the spring of 1919. What a day it was! What joy, what frenzy, what abandon had seized on the most hard-boiled city in the world l It seemed as if the floodgates of men's very souls had burst apart and all the pent-up passion of centuries had stormed forth in a mighty surge. Mobs everywhere, with banners, bands, bells, whistles, singing, screaming, clanging, whistling, and in every other way acclaiming the big hero of the day. Everybody's hero, everywhere. Ticker tape in endless waves streamed down from the tall buildings and flaked the streets until it seemed as though a blizzard had swept over them. The Sergeant himself, in commenting on this scene, or rather siege, or rapture, remarked: "There was a right smart crowd of people out and it seemed as though most of them knowed me."

Of course they "knowed him." How could they help it? They had read and heard so much of him. For weeks newspapers had printed endless stories of his extraordinary feat in the Argonne Forest. Marshal Foche and General Pershing had officially mentioned it in their dispatches. The returning doughboys guaranteed that it was true, every word of it, and there were the medals and other decorations on his chest for all the world to see.

More stories had poured forth of his exotic mountain background, his deadly skill with rifle and pistol, his amazing knowledge of woodcraft, his tender solicitude for the American wounded during the battle in the Argonne, his chivalrous treatment of the German prisoners, his great piety, and, most unbelievable of all, his having originally been a conscientious objector! Certainly a dramatic personality, fitting magnificently the scene and the spirit of the day.

I was one of the thousands that stormed the streets of the city. A returned wounded soldier myself, I felt poignantly the meaning of this uproarious welcome, its joy, and, almost as much, its undercurrent of sadness. I knew machine guns. I knew the staccato bark, the spitting yellow flame, the swish of bullets, and the double-distilled hell they sowed wherever they fell. I knew that they fired six hundred shots a minute in a steady stream like water from a hose. I knew that a skilled machine gunner could cut his initials on a sandbag. And I knew that German machine gunners shot straight. Again and again I had seen squads, platoons, and whole companies charge them and go down like ripe corn before the reaper's blade. And this big, gangling mountaineer had whipped a whole battalion of them!



At first I was skeptical. Who was not? It sounded too much like a fairy tale. It just could not be done. It was not human. Yet it was done. Therefore, it could be done and it was human. It was one of the best documented stories of the war. Appreciating that it was an almost unbelievable feat, the officers of his division very wisely lost no time in checking up and verifying it beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt. They carefully examined and took the affidavits of the surviving doughboys who were with York, but who, according to their own statements, took little or no part in the actual fight with the machine guns. They re-visited the battlefield and checked up the account of the battle the following morning and again after the armistice. Their report was thorough and convincing:

The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from headquarters of this division and is entirely substantiated. Sergeant York's own statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame.

And there was the Medal of Honor awarded by a special act of Congress. No wonder that New York, after one glimpse of this sturdy and freckle-faced mountaineer with his flaming red hair, went wild with ecstasy.

The following morning I chuckled when I read in the newspapers that "he weren't a-going to commercialize his fame nohow. He weren't a-going on the stage or in the movies, but he sure would like a ride in the subways." It was the language of the mountaineer and the soldier, direct and decisive, and also of the boy, eager to play and see the wonder works of the world.

More than ten years have fled by since then. The world has returned to its normal every-day tasks. Diplomats have resumed the old job of writing polite peace notes to each other and building armies, too, and new machines of war, the mightiest the world has yet known. Meanwhile, Sergeant York has slipped back to "the little old log cabin in the mountains and them thar hound dogs of mine and the life whar I belong." Now and then there would be brief mention of him in some newspaper of a lecture he had given in this and that city, of his interest in building schools and roads in the mountain country, and of his efforts to lead his people to some of the finer things in life. Once in a while someone would retell in a magazine the story of his Argonne fight. But that was all. Even his famous war diary, of which much had been written, had not, save for occasional excerpts, been put into print. The man himself had remained a mystery, possibly because he had already become a legend.

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In the spring of 1927, while driving through Tennessee, I resolved to swing into the mountains to visit York in his own home. I wanted to see him in his mountain setting "in that-thar country whar I belong." I wanted to know how he was faring in his seclusion "far from the madding crowd," that had once so worshipfully acclaimed him. I wanted to get the feel of the man, the soldier, the mountaineer, the hunter, the preacher, the American. I had no thought at that time of writing with him his story. I just wanted to satisfy a personal urge, so deep-stirring that it had been part of me since that memorable day when I saw him in New York on his return from France.

On inquiry I learned that Sergeant York was living in Pall Mall, Fentress County, Tenn., in the heart of the Cumberland country. The town, if it may be so called, is off the railroad in the northeast part of the state, not far from the Kentucky line. Thither I went, and what a journey it was l What a road I had to traverse! Now it was a narrow ledge, dizzily skirting precipitous cliffs; now in the valleys, the bottom seemed to drop right out of it. It did everything a decent, civilized road should not do. It flitted up and down the mountain in unbelievable jerks and jumps. It led up creek beds. It forded streams. It most dexterously dodged stumps and boulders, with falling timber and landslides thrown in for added thrills. It was a primitive, barbarous road.

The country around was likewise primitive, but haunting in its picturesqueness, with second-growth timber and rock-ribbed fields. Scarcely a white man's country, certainly not a country of civilized humanity. It used to be the "Happy Hunting Ground" of the Creeks and Cherokees. Once it had abounded in bear, deer, and buffalo. The older mountaineers still regale each other with stories of Daniel Boone leaping on the backs of buffaloes and bringing them down with his bowie knife, and of Davy Crockett shooting more than one hundred "baar" in one season. But when the white setters, Scotch-Irish, borderers, Covenanters, Cavaliers invaded the country, they whipped the Indians, slaughtered the big game and hewed down the forests. Now the Indian is banished from the scene. Big game is almost a memory only and timber is largely of second growth. But it is thick again, and rolls over the mountains in endless swells like ocean waves in a storm. It is really wondrous country! Sky. Pine. Rocks. Air that chills and buoys. Vista on vista of blue mountain peaks. Valleys shot with gold. Water everywhere, cool, clear, gurgling right out of the mountainside. Rhododendron bells. Laurel blooms. Redbud and wild dogwood blossoms, a profusion of both, and an endless variety of mountain flowers-a country to delight and thrill the seeker of adventure.

And still but sparsely populated. There were miles without a sign or sight of a human being. Now and then I would pass a cabin built of logs, with a flat roof and small windows, sometimes with broken panes or no panes at all, with a piece of cloth spread over the frame. Nowhere even a dab of paint. Nowhere a touch of brightness, save only what Nature in its bountifulness has provided. Dreary cabins, housing some of the poorest people in the country and the least enlightened. In the valleys there were groups of cabins, small, oft dilapidated, with withered shingles on the roofs, battered porches, sagging windows, sometimes twisted out of shape like the eyes of a cross-eyed man. Occasionally I would see a mountaineer toting a gun, rangy and raw-boned, with shoes twisted from wear, and a couple of hounds loping along behind. He would proffer the usual "howdy" and shuffle on. Once, right in the heart of the forest, I saw a man working in a field with a scooter plough which is all wood but the tiny point, and a woman stooping over a steaming black wash-kettle in a yard. l understood then why it was that Sergeant York had been seeking to bring schools to his people.

I drove on. Again woods, sky, rocks, enlivened with patches of riotous-hued flowers. The whine and rip of a sawmill, the clanging thud of the woodsman's axe, the crash of a falling tree rose now and then with reverberating echoes over the mountainside. Once I passed a logger's camp. Occasionally on a hillside or in a valley there would be patches of corn for hogs and cattle, and even more perhaps for moonshine, which is more profitable. It is not uncommon in the mountains for some wit to ask you when you call to buy corn whether you want it in a sack or in a jar. Tennessee "moon" is potent, overproof, and so clear, they say, that one can read the Constitution of the United States right through a gallon jar. Moonshining is still regarded, especially by the older folk, as a feudal right. The mountaineer insists that "hit ain't agin the Government nohow." Revenue men, like rattlers, and there are plenty of both, are not very popular in the mountains.

But conditions are changing. Improved roads, automobiles, and better organization work permit the Federal officers to penetrate deeper and deeper into the mountains, and with greater safety. Occasionally there is a fight, but only occasionally. The mountaineers have learned that it is bad business to shoot up Uncle Sam's men. They usually follow along without: much fuss or bluster, or else "light out into the timber" where the Government agent, unless experienced in the ways of the woods, soon loses his trail. Meanwhile, a. younger and more enlightened generation is growing up. In time "rev-killing" and feuds will fade into the memory of a picturesque, if lawless past.

At last I came on an expanse of flat country. It was the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, and, though I knew I was up high, mountains were nowhere in sight. A few miles farther I was in Jamestown, the county seat of Fentress County, York's county. "Jimtown," it is called, and "hit is on top of the mountain." It has a population of about twelve hundred and boasts of an old courthouse right in the center of the square, a frame school house, post office, pool hall, several stores, a prairie-schooner mail cart, and a weekly newspaper. Save for the York Highway, which runs through the center of the town, the streets are unpaved, and what streets! —sand and rock, turf and mud, ruts and hollows in which the water never seems to dry out, and the sidewalks, when there are any, are of split and rotted boards, with rusty nails sticking up, tripping pedestrians and scratching up their shoes.

It is an unkempt, straggly town, with no sense of style or even comfort. Cows browse in the side streets, and so do pigs. Debris is never swept away except by the wind. It is an old town, and it looks its age. It is still dreaming of the Civil War and reliving memories of bushwhackers, moonshiners, Indian fights, big hunts, and other boisterous incidents of the frontier days. A traveler passing through the town in 1893 wrote: "It is one of the oldest towns in the state, and until the last twelve months was also generally regarded by the outside world as the deadest. It is said that for the past sixty years the sound of the hammer or saw has not been heard there, and not a single nail has been driven into any new building."

Still, the town is beginning slowly to stir into a new
life. Only two years ago after a rain it was cut off
from the world by rivers of mud. The few roads
there were "begun and ended nowhere, "as one of its
citizens put it. But now, though still without a motion picture house or dancehall, good roads are being built to the outlying world. Automobiles and radios are bringing it into closer touch with outside humanity, and the younger generation is beginning to learn something about college. There are indications that Jamestown is on the eve of big things and may yet play a dramatic part in the modernization of eastern Tennessee. To a very large extent, Sergeant Alvin C. York is responsible for this budding renaissance. He certainly is rubbing the sleep out of the town's eyes and shaking the life out of it, or, more properly, into it.

I stopped at a town restaurant, Suva's Restaurant, known far and wide for its culinary excellence. The usual unofficial court was in session there. Town folk, lumberjacks, mountaineers, in overalls, blue jeans, and ordinary street clothes, were gossiping with animation and were passing judgment on men and events. They all "knowed the Sergeant," or Alvin, as they call him. He lived nine miles away in Pall Mall, "right under the mountain"; that is, in the valley below. They hadn't "seed him around nowhere," but they guessed he was on the farm. Suva, large and radiant, with sparkling eyes, was York's most enthusiastic supporter of them all. It was she who directed me to the Sergeant's office across the street.

I clambered up the rough cement steps in the back of the bank building, traversed a dingy corridor, and entered a small furnished room where I met the Sergeant's secretary and his right-hand man, Mr. A. S. Bushing.

The Sergeant, Bushing informed me, had left that very morning for Florida. That was a grievous disappointment to me, especially as I had made this tortuous trip of nearly two hundred miles through the mountains on purpose to meet him. But Bushing's hospitality made up in part for the disappointment. The first thing he spoke of was the school. He offered to take me out and show me the site selected for it. It was evident that the school had already become as much a part of the Sergeant's story as his fight in the Argonne or the blue mountains amidst which he was reared.

We motored out along the highway, the very one on which York had at one time toiled as a laborer for one dollar and sixty. cents a day, and which when completed was named in his honor. The school site stretched for a mile along this road, right outside of the town on the way to Pall Mall. No wonder the Sergeant insists that, "hit is going up right here." It is situated in the very heart of a clump of stately evergreens. It is to be a mountain school in a mountain setting for mountain boys and girls. It is to be the achievement of the life work of the big, red-headed, semi-literate mountaineer who faced all alone thirty-five blazing machine guns and "jes' teched them off" and then returned home, the greatest of all heroes of the greatest of all wars.




By Tom Skeyhill

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