Grandson of Famed Sgt. York: Backwoods Home Prepared Him to Fight

Retired Army Col. Gerald York, grandson of World War I Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin C. York, talks about his grandfather’s values and legacy during commemoration ceremonies in the village of Chatel-ChAfAhAfAry, France, Oct. 4, 2008. (U.S. Army photo/Dave Melancon)
Retired Army Col. Gerald York, grandson of World War I Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin C. York, talks about his grandfather’s values and legacy during commemoration ceremonies in the village of Chatel-ChAfAhAfAry, France, Oct. 4, 2008. (U.S. Army photo/Dave Melancon)

On his first trip to the site where the battle took place, retired Army Col. Gerald York thought that his legendary grandfather must have felt as much at home on the morning of Oct. 8, 1918, as anyone could be in a war.

"I was amazed at how much the terrain around the area looked like Pall Mall [Tennessee]," where Alvin York grew up in a two-room log cabin and became a crack shot in the Appalachian hill country near the Kentucky line, said Gerald York, a 31-year Army and Vietnam veteran. "He always felt at home in the woods."

York, 71, passed his earliest years without an understanding of who his grandfather was. Sgt. Alvin York, who originally tried to excuse himself from service as a conscientious objector, would distinguish himself in World War I, earning the Medal of Honor. As a 29-year-old corporal in the biggest series of battles ever fought by Americans -- the Meuse-Argonne offensive of World War I -- York was credited with killing as many as 25 Germans with a rifle and a handgun, and capturing at least 128 others. His story would later be told in the 1941 film "Sergeant York," starring Gary Cooper, which went on to win multiple Academy Awards.

As a boy, Gerald York recalled, he saw the movie but never really made the connection to his grandfather. Then in the 5th or 6th grade, he said, his teacher called him to the front of the class for a reading lesson. She told him to read the encyclopedia entry about his grandfather.

At first, he thought, "What's my grandfather doing in the encyclopedia?"

It was then, he said, that he understood why Alvin York was given such respect in the county.

The similarities between the areas around the French town of Chatel-Chehery and the Tennessee hills were things he had to learn on his own, Gerald York said Thursday in a phone interview with Military.com.

His taciturn grandfather "did not really talk to the family about what happened" in the war while serving with Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, he said.

When the subject came up, his grandfather would steer the conversation away, Gerald York recalled.

"The real heroes are still over there, the ones who didn't come home," Alvin York, who earned the Medal of Honor, would say.

Gerald York, the grandson, said he sensed a feeling of unease his grandfather always had about discussing his war experiences, with the exception of Alvin York's visits with a younger distant relative who lived about 20 miles away across the Kentucky line and had fought in World War II.

"I think he was amazed at the attention he received," Gerald York said of his grandfather. "I'm not sure he was comfortable with it. He would say, 'I really didn't do all that much. I just did my job.' "

In a Paris ceremony after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of all allied forces, decorated Alvin York with the Croix de Guerre and told him, "What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe."

His own unit promoted Alvin York to sergeant and awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, later upgraded the DSC to the Medal of Honor.

His grandfather relished his visits with Garlin Murl Conner, an Army veteran like himself, Gerald York said. Conner had a battlefield promotion to 1st lieutenant and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during World War II.

Alvin York attended the homecoming parade for Conner in Albany, Kentucky, and spoke at the courthouse later, but his words were not recorded.

In their visits, York and Conner would exchange pleasantries with other members of their families and then go off together into a field on Conner’s farm and talk by themselves, a hero of one world war talking to a hero of the one that followed, Gerald York said.

"My grandfather never talked" about what was said between them, Gerald York said, "and Lt. Conner never talked about it either."

Conner died at age 79 in 1998. After a long bureaucratic battle, his DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor this year. In June at the White House, President Donald Trump presented the Medal of Honor to his widow, 89-year-old Pauline Conner.

In the few times he spoke in public, Conner echoed Alvin York in his reticence to discuss war. "I'd done what I had to do, and that's all there is to it," he said, according to an Army release at the awards ceremony

Medal of Honor citations were terse at the time. Sgt. York's amounted to one paragraph.

"After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command," the citation read. "Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine-gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat, the machine-gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns."

In the diary he kept, Alvin York described a horrific fight that began with a surprise attack: "The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. "And I'm telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home.

"Our attack just faded out and there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard," he wrote. "And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life.

"As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could," Alvin York continued. "I was sharp shooting. All the time, I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had."

His exploits were celebrated in France, but he was relatively unknown in the U.S. until the Saturday Evening Post published an article about the unschooled, hard-drinking and brawling backcountry boy who turned to religion before he was drafted and went on to fame in the Army.

He initially claimed conscientious objector status, but his commanders, also deeply religious men, read him Bible passages to convince him that it was his duty to serve.

As World War II loomed, Alvin York, at age 54, sought to re-enlist in the Army as a combat soldier, but was denied. He later was commissioned as a major and served in the Army Signal Corps stateside. He toured training camps, participated in war bond drives and served on the county draft board.

His grandfather never steered him to a military career, said Gerald York, who still calls Pall Mall home.

"My grandfather always wanted me to be a doctor," he said.

In the 1920s, York formed the Alvin C. York Foundation to promote education for unschooled hill country boys such as he had been.

If he were still alive, "I think he would be a great proponent for education. He had a passion for the education of mountain children," Gerald York said.

In his own time in the military, there was pressure in being the grandson of a legend, he said.

On the rifle range, "they all expected me to make a perfect score," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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