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York on the Argonne Forest hill where, with the aid of 17 men, he captured 132 German prisoners on Oct. 8, 1918. (National Archives photo)
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Sgt. Alvin York

World War I's Most Famous Soldier Regarded His Deeds As No More Than Duty

Some heroes are born ready to fight. Others, such as World War I's most celebrated soldier, Sgt. Alvin C. York, struggle with their beliefs even as they bring down the enemy.

Alvin Cullium York was born in Pall Mall, Tenn., to a long line of sharpshooters and patriots. York himself could shoot the head off a turkey with rifle or six-shooter. But Alvin York preferred not to take up arms in battle -- largely because of his conversion to the Church of Christ and Christian Union by the woman who would become his wife.

In York's own words: "I didn't want to go to war. My own experience told me it wasn't right, and the Bible was against it too ... but Uncle Sam said he wanted me, and I had been brought up to believe in my country."

Once drafted, York found his natural shooting ability paying off, along with his natural intellect. Two officers at the 38th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, took it upon themselves to erase the sincere young soldier's doubts about the Biblical injunctions against war. One night, a Capt. Danforth read from the Biblical book of Ezekiel about the watchman warning the people of the sword. When he had finished, York stood and said "I'm satisfied." His misgivings had been cast aside by the kind of plain speaking and teaching he most admired.

Just weeks later, the 82nd Division left for France -- and the Battle of the Argonne. A corporal in Company G, York was one of 16 men assigned to bring down a hillside of enemy machine guns. Through a series of unfortunate maneuvers, York was left facing a German machine-gun battalion alone. He seems never to have thought of surrender.

Instead, York killed some two dozen Germans, knocked out 35 machine guns, and managed to bring 132 prisoners in. For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre, and other awards. His exploits and character captured the public's attention, but his own reaction was matter-of-fact. "It's over; let's just forget about it." A self-reliant soldier-patriot, York did what his country asked, then came home to live a resolutely simple life.

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