America at War: World War I
|Digital History ID 3471|
In the French village of Chatel-Chehery stands a memorial that describes the exploits of one of America's World War I soldiers. "Armed with a rifle and pistol," the monument reads, "...he silenced a German battalion of 35 machine guns, killed 25 enemy soldiers, and captured 132."
The soldier’s name was Alvin Cullum York. He was born in a one-room log cabin in rural Fentress County, in the Cumberland Mountains of northern Tennessee. Even today, his hometown of Pall Mall has only a single paved road. The third of 11 children, his father died when he was a boy.
When he was 27, York abandoned his hard-drinking, brawling ways and joined a fundamentalist church. A pacifist and a church elder, he registered for the military draft as a conscientious objector. During basic training, he went home to struggle with his conscience and, ultimately, decided that it was God's will that he fight. On October 8, 1918, York, then a corporal, single-handedly killed 25 German soldiers and forced a German commander to order the rest of the battalion to surrender. Hollywood made his exploits into a 1941 movie, Sgt. York, starring Gary Cooper.
The real-life man lived a simple life. After the war, he turned down offers to promote products that would have earned him $500,000. He returned to Pall Mall and worked as a blacksmith. He used the royalties he earned from the film to found a high school in Jamestown, Tenn.