The Real Sergeant York

Conflict: World War I

Alvin York standing where the famous action took place

Alvin York standing where the famous action took place

If you’re a Gary Cooper fan, you may have seen his 1941 film Sergeant York, for which Cooper won an Academy Award. But did you know that the film was based on the real-life exploits of Alvin York during World War I?

Alvin, the third of eleven children, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains. Like many children growing up in that region at the time, Alvin didn’t receive much schooling. Instead, he worked on the struggling family farm and went hunting with his father, from whom Alvin learned to become a crack-shot marksman. When his father died in 1911, Alvin, then age 24, became head of the household, since his two older brothers had married and moved away. He became a hard-drinking carouser for the next four years or so, until he converted to the Church of Christ in Christian Union and gave up his rough lifestyle for good.

In 1917, Alvin, age 29, had to register for the draft, but he was conflicted—he believed being a faithful Christian meant obeying the Bible when it said not to kill, but he also wanted to support his country. He ended up writing on his draft registration card that he wanted to be exempted because he didn’t want to fight. He was drafted anyway, and after much soul searching and some discussions with his military superiors, Alvin came to believe that fighting in the war wouldn’t go against the Bible.

Alvin York’s draft registration card

Alvin York’s draft registration card

He and his division were sent over to France in mid-1918, and it was on 8 October, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, that Alvin made a name for himself. His platoon was being slaughtered by German machine gunners, so Alvin and 16 others were ordered to sneak up on the Germans from behind and take them out. When the Americans came around behind the Germans, they unexpectedly found the Germans’ headquarters and captured the men there. But the noise of capturing the headquarters alerted other nearby Germans to what was going on, and they began firing on the Americans from the ridge with their machine guns. Once again, the Americans took heavy losses, leaving only seven soldiers and Alvin—the sole non-commissioned officer left.

Leaving his men guarding the prisoners, Alvin, despite the constant gunfire, began shooting at the 30 or so Germans one by one as they raised themselves above the ridge in order to fire. Six Germans also tried to charge Alvin, but he picked them off one at a time, starting at the back like he had been taught to do while turkey hunting. Having killed 28 Germans with as many bullets, Alvin yelled to the Germans to surrender, and an English-speaking German major stepped forward and agreed. As they worked their way back to the American lines, Alvin and his seven men got other Germans to surrender as well, so they had 132 German prisoners by the time they reached camp.

Alvin York and his mother

Alvin York and his mother

Alvin received many honors for his bravery, including the Medal of Honor. He returned home to national acclaim in 1919 and married his sweetheart a week later. Alvin didn’t try to make money off his fame, instead devoting his efforts to developing schools and education in his beloved Tennessee mountains. In 1940, he finally agreed to a film based on his life and used the money to fund an interdominational Bible school. The film, Sergeant York, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, came out a year later.

Read more about Alvin York here, here, or here. Or find contemporary newspaper articles about him in Fold3’s historical Newspapers collection. You can also find other stories and documents from the war in Fold3’s World War I collection.