The most famous American warrior of World War I was a reluctant hero. When drafted, he struggled with the idea of fighting. Thirty-year-old Alvin York, a backwoods Tennessee farmer, had only recently given up his “hog wild” days of drinking and carousing, and had asked his sweetheart to marry him. He had embraced the pacifist Christian faith of his widowed mother. “I loved and trusted old Uncle Sam and I have always believed he did the right thing,” he later said. “But I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill.”
York spent weeks wrestling with his conscience, and finally decided that although he hated war, going was the right thing to do. He left for France convinced that “we were to be peacemakers. . . . We were to help make peace, the only way the Germans would understand.”
He had grown up hunting, and the other soldiers soon discovered that he was an astonishing shot. On October 8, 1918, in the Argonne Forest, his marksmanship saved American lives when his patrol ran into a German machine-gun nest. “Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home,” he recalled. He went on the attack, picking off 25 Germans with his rifle and pistol before their commander surrendered. By the time York and his companions got back to headquarters, they had a long line of prisoners. “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army,” an officer said. York replied that he had only 132.
Promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor, he was greeted in New York City after the war with a ticker tape parade. But he declined to grow rich off his fame. He returned to Tennessee, married his fiancée, established a school for mountain children, and farmed the land as he had before.
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