Sgt. York put his hunting skills to use in World War I.
By CATHY SECKMAN
PALL MALL, Tenn. -- Most everyone has heard, at least in passing, of Sgt. York. His name has a vague familiarity, thanks mostly to the Oscar-winning movie of the same name starring Gary Cooper.
If you've ever wanted to know more, the answers are in Pall Mall, Tenn., deep in the Valley of the Three Forks. Here, in the house the state of Tennessee bought for Sgt. York, his son, Andrew, greets visitors and guards the legacy of his heroic father.
Alvin C. York was a squirrel-shooting, hell-raising good old boy in the early part of the century. After he became a Christian he sought conscientious objector status to avoid being drafted for World War I. He believed killing was a sin, even in wartime. The government refused his argument, though, and he found himself facing the German Army in the Argonne Forest.
At that point, York decided he could kill Germans if it prevented Americans from being killed, so he put his backwoods hunting skills to use. Leading a squad around a German position, he shot 25 enemy soldiers before the rest surrendered. He and his seven men marched 132 prisoners back to the American lines.
For that feat, he was awarded more than 40 Allied decorations, including the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. He became the most decorated soldier of World War I and returned home to fanfare and ticker tape parades.
Home again: York declined to cash in on his fame, and returned home to marry his long-time sweetheart. He fathered 10 children and lived a long and happy life of public service until his death in 1964. He lobbied the state capitol for the first paved road into the area (the Alvin York Memorial Highway), and in 1929 he founded the Alvin York Institute, which survives today as the area high school. York Bible School and York Chapel are in the area, as well. He also operated a post office and general store locally.
Since 1968, the Alvin C. York State Historic Area has preserved the York homestead, the York Grist Mill and the sergeant's burial site. At the home, visitors walk into a sun porch to be greeted by an elderly park ranger named Andrew Jackson York, one of the soldier's children. Most of the children were named for famous Americans, Andrew explains, naming siblings in a family portrait. Others were Betsy Ross, Woodrow Wilson, Alvin Jr., Thomas Jefferson, George Edward Buxton and Sam Houston.
Andrew autographs each brochure given to visitors, drawing a line to point out himself as a child in a family photograph.
The scene: Only the first floor is open to the public, including a living room, dining room, kitchen, office and bedroom. In the bedroom is a bed that can be moved by an invalid thanks to a large wheel at shoulder level. York used it to get around the downstairs after a stroke left him partially paralyzed in his 60s. The other rooms are filled with memorabilia and photos that tell the story of York's life and his accomplishments.
Across the highway on the Wolf River is the grist mill York operated in the 1940s. A picnic area and public restrooms are adjacent. A short distance away is the York Burial Site in Wolf River Cemetery, where an imposing stone cross and an American flag stand guard over the crypt.
In these times, when we look for heroes to honor, a hero from our grandfathers' times is worth remembering.