Probably no American enlisted man of the First World War was more famous than Alvin C. York (1887-1964). York grew up in the Tennessee mountains, without education, without even shoes most of the time, and with a taste for drinking and fighting. His keen eye and deadly marksmanship were assets to a man who fed his family largely by what he could shoot in the woods. In his mid-20s, following an intense spiritual experience at a revival meeting, York became a Christian and adopted his mother’s pacifist tenets. His drinking, brawling days were over.
In 1917, when he was 29, York was required to register for the draft. He recorded in his tiny pocket diary,
I went and when they looked at me they weighed me and I weighed 170 pounds and was 72 inches tall. So they said I passed all right. Well, when they said that I almost knowed that I would have to go to the army. I was lean and hard at that time. I had no fat on me at all. Up to that time I had never been sick; only once, in 1906, when I got wet throughout from fencing, and had pneumonia.
He asked for exemption from the service, saying “Don’t want to fight.” Nevertheless, he was ordered to report for training.
I went to Jamestown and reported to the local board, and I stayed all night that night at Dr. Alexander’s [a local preacher]. I knew now I was in it. I was bothered a plenty as to whether it was right or wrong. I knew that if it was right, everything would be all right. And I also knew that if it was wrong and we were only fighting for a bunch of foreigners, it would be all wrong. And I prayed and prayed. I prayed two whole days and a night out on the mountainside. An I received my assurance that it was all right, that I should go, and that I would come back without a scratch. I received this assurance direct from God. And I have always been led to believe that He always keeps his promise. I told my little old mother not to worry; that it was all right, and that I was coming back, and I I told my brothers and sisters, and I told Pastor Pile, and I prayed with him, and I told everybody else I discussed it with. But it was very hard on my mother, just like it was on all mothers, and she didn’t want to see me go.
His great trial came on October 8, 1918, when York, one of a party of 17, was ordered to take out a line of German machine guns. Almost instantly the unit’s leadership was wiped out, leaving newly promoted Corporal York in command of seven survivors.
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. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush. … All I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. 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.
Finally the German commander surrendered. York and his tiny handful of men marched back to the American lines with 132 prisoners.
That was the best known of his military exploits, but by no means the only one. Before the war ended, York received almost 50 battle decorations – including the Medal of Honor. At least three European nations also decorated him.
Back home, York married his sweetheart. He also became the object of adulation – banquets were given in his honor. The House of Representatives gave him a standing ovation when he appeared here. Yet York refused most offers, including those that came with checks, to be interviewed, to make personal appearances, to sell his story to the movies. Instead, his eyes having been opened to the value of education, York devoted himself to increasing the opportunities for education in and around his home county. At one point he mortgaged his own farm to pay for bus transportation to get students to school. He raised funds and eventually founded a Bible school – for that goal, he finally authorized a movie to be made of his life, starring Gary Cooper.
And the Mormon angle?
York was as famous in 1949 as he had ever been, still living in his hometown of Jamestown, Tennessee, still supporting plans for his Bible college. He was an object of interest to two LDS missionaries, Burke V. Bastian and L. Kent Bardsley, both of central Utah, and the famous old soldier was often pointed out to the elders. That summer the elders were visited by two supervising elders (zone leaders, I suppose, in today’s terms), who wanted to meet the hero as badly as did the local elders. So the four of them, without appointment, without introduction, drove to York’s farm.
As we drove up, the Sergeant was looking over his Hereford cattle. We introduced ourselves as Mormon Elders and he seemed pleased to meet us. He is a large man with somewhat of a sharp sense of humor.
As the conversation progressed we found Mr. York to be well informed on current events. he pointed out to us his large and well-kept ranch and a number of tracts of “the best oak and poplar in Tennessee.”
One of his friends arrived and made mention of the critical condition facing the world at the present. Mr. York said, ‘Well, this is the country where the Lord is doing His work, and don’t think that God didn’t have a hand in this last war. Russia closes all her doors to religion, and I don’t think god will allow her to overcome this country, and I know he won’t as long as the people here don’t for get Him. The people here can’t leave God out. Who do you think gave this country the power of the atomic bomb?”
Mr. York also told us that at one time in New York City he was on the program “We the People” with the youngest daughter of Brigham Young.
Lately Mr. York has been working with a Latter-day Saint from Pensacola, Florida, from whom he had heard the Book of Mormon mentioned. This, of course, presented us an excellent opportunity to explain to him how this sacred record came forth.
He seemed quite interested in our story and was very glad to receive the book with our compliments. He said, “I have been wanting to get one of these books. I’ll take it home and study it some.”
We feel assured that our literature was left in good hands, knowing the book of Mormon contains a powerful conviction and testimony of the truth.
There is no further word on whether York did read the Book of Mormon or ever spoke to another Mormon. It is interesting to me, though, to see that he remembered and could tell the elders of other contacts he had had with Latter-day Saints.
York had suffered a stroke the year before the elders called on him, although they don’t mention anything about impaired health. He had further strokes in following years, and was an invalid from 1954 until his death in 1964. He was survived by seven of his eight children. His sweetheart Gracie died in 1984.