As we celebrate Memorial Day 2011, our nation pays homage to veterans who have helped preserve our freedoms. Sometimes, very reluctantly. One case in point in the story of Sergeant Alvin York. Alvin C. York was born in the backwoods of Tennessee, third of eleven children to his parents. Known as something of a hell-raiser in his youth, with plenty of boozing and brawling, York turned to God at the age of 27, joining a small church. When America entered World War One, he attempted to get an exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector. His exemption was denied.

Sergeant Alvin C York

Even if it had been approved, York probably would have still served as an Army orderly or other such duties that would have kept him battle. Unlike the film version of his life, York did not press the issue with repeated appeals once drafted. Nor did he try to get out of serving using a hardship exemption, being the sole supporter for his mother and family. While he still believed the killing was wrong, York went on to serve, joining the 82nd Infantry Division.

On October 8, 1918, his battalion launched an attack against German positions near Chatel-Chehery, France. As part of of unit of 17 men, York and his comrades were ordered to infiltrate German lines and take out a group of machinegun nests that were pinning the battalion down. At first, they were successful, capturing a German headquarters unit, taking a group of soldiers and officers prisoner. The attack then went poorly, with nine men killed or wounded, including all of the sergeants, when another machine nest opened fired upon them. York, a Corporal at the time, was now in charge.

While the other seven men watched the prisoners, York went alone to silence the machine gun. He maneuvered to a flank of the nest and picked them off with his rifle. A group of six Germans charged at him. York emptied his rifle, then used his Colt .45 pistol to finish the rest before they reached him. As the battle raged, a German officer finally relented and surrendered his men to York. The eight Americans returned to their lines with 132 German prisoners.

Promoted to sergeant, Alvin York received the Distinguished Service Cross, and later the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. In all, he was awarded with some 50 combat decorations, including some from other Allied nations, such as the French Croix de Guerre. A writer for the Saturday Evening Post heard about York sometime later, and published a story in April, 1919 which turned York into a national hero. He did not cash in on his fame, turning down many offers.

York went on to use his notoriety to improve education in Tennessee and helped fond a number of charitable foundations. Throughout most of his life, he was plagued by financial problems, until 1941 when the movie of his WWI deeds became a box-office hit. Even then, York still ran into trouble, often speaking out in support of controversial decisions. He supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW2. He even supported the use of the atomic bomb, and was later critical for it not being used to end the conflict in Korea.

But for Memorial Day 2011, I choose to rejoice and praise men such as Sergeant Alvin York. An American from humble beginnings, whose faith in God was strong. In war, he did what he had to do. True, he was opposed to killing, but he believed that our cause was just and moral. Like most war heroes, York did not act for the sake of pure glory or cause, but instead to save the lives of his own men. He simply could not sit idly by and watch his friends be murdered.

Related Articles:

Sereant York Patriotic Foundation

The Sergeant Alvin C. York Project

First World War.com – Who′s Who – Alvin C. York