In this lesson we will learn about the life of World War I hero, Alvin C. York. We will learn why he has become a legend in American military history. We will also briefly highlight some of his quotes.

Who Was Sergeant York?

Have you ever watched a war movie where one single character storms the enemy position with almost super-human strength? You know, he runs into the face of almost certain death, but somehow ends up killing a whole bunch of ‘bad guys’ and saves the day. That is pretty much what happened in 1918 when a young American corporal led an attack against German machine gun nests in France. So who was who this man? None other than Alvin Cullum York, also commonly known as Sergeant York. Sergeant York’s heroic actions in the fall of 1918 earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for personal valor on the battlefield, and turned him into a real-life American hero. Let’s learn more about his life, his courageous act of valor, and even some of the things he said.

American war hero, Sergeant York.

Biography and Act of Valor

Alvin Cullum York was born in a log cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee in 1887. When the United States became involved in World War I, York was required to register for the selective service draft. Initially, York attempted to obtain an exemption as a conscientious objector, but this was denied. After being drafted into the infantry, he struggled to reconcile his Christian beliefs and pacifism with his duty to fight for his country. However, after soul-searching and careful consideration, York modified his position and became an enthusiastic solider.

Alvin York served in the 82nd Infantry Division. This group found itself involved in fighting the Battle of the Argonne Forest, also called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, between September–November 1918. On October 8th, Alvin York, at that time a corporal, was ordered by his superiors to coordinate with three other non-commissioned officers and thirteen privates to attack a German machine gun nest. Under intense machine gun fire, York and his men infiltrated the area and began killing German soldiers. When the other three non-commissioned officers became casualties, York assumed command and led seven men to storm the machine gun nest. In the fighting, Corporal York expended all the bullets in his M1917 Enfield rifle, so he drew his Colt .45 pistol and began firing, killing six. When the dust cleared, York and his small band of soldiers had captured 32 machine guns, killed at least 20 German soldiers, and captured 132 German soldiers who had surrendered (partly because they were shocked at the audacity of York and his men).

This painting depicts Sergeant York in the heat of battle.

Honors, Fame and Later Life

Upon this act of valor, York was promoted to the rank of sergeant (hence his designation ”Sergeant York”), and he received an award called the Distinguished Service Cross. After word of his deed spread, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for acts of valor, by General John J. Pershing, the commander of the AEF (Allied Expeditionary Force). In addition to winning the Medal of Honor, York was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor by France.

The American WWI Medal of Honor, the award Sergeant York received from General Pershing.

In 1926, York founded the Alvin C. York Institute, a private agricultural school near his home in Tennessee. It was later transformed into a public school. It would seem that York’s lack of formal education, played a role in his desire to found a school.

In 1941, a film was made about Sergeant York. It was called (not surprisingly) Sergeant York. It starred Gary Cooper, who incidentally won the Oscar Award that year for Best Actor. Initially, the modest Alvin York refused to have a movie made about him, but after sustained pressure, he finally gave in. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, isolationist sentiment was strong in the United States. In the years leading up to World War II, York was a proponent of American preparedness, and this played a role in his decision to let Hollywood film-makers produce a movie about him. Released in July 1941, the movie Sergeant York was a wild success.

When World War II broke out, York re-enlisted and served as a colonel in the Army Signal Corps. In this position he engaged mainly in public relations activities, giving speeches and raising money through bond drives and other means. Despite his status as a colonel, he was still commonly referred to as ”Sergeant York.” An extraordinary war hero, York died of natural causes in 1964, and was buried in Pall Mall, Tennessee.


Let’s look at a few things Sergeant York said. These quotes come from his personal diary.

  • ”A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do.” – Diary of Alvin York
  • ”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.” – Diary of Alvin York
  • ”God would never be cruel enough to create a cyclone as terrible as that Argonne battle. Only man would ever think of doing an awful thing like that.” – Diary of Alvin York

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Alvin C. York, commonly known as Sergeant York was a World War I hero, whose actions in the fall of 1918 earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for personal valor on the battlefield. Born in Tennessee, York was drafted into World War I. He initially tried to claim an exemption as a contentious objector, but this was denied. During the Battle of the Argonne Forest, York and a few men stormed a German machine gun nest and killed 20 soldiers, captured 32 machine guns, and forced the surrender of 132 German soldiers. This act of valor earned him the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him by General John J. Pershing, the commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF). In 1941, a film was made about York’s life. It was called Sergeant York and featured Gary Cooper. York served with the Army Signal Corps during World War II, and died in 1964.