A legacy of leadership lessons from Sgt.York

On October 8, 1918, Alvin York led an attack on a German machine gunnest, which led him to become one of the most decorated U.S. Army soldiers of World War 1


In 1914 Alvin York was a young man living in the mountains around Pall Mall, Tennessee. His neighbors knew him to be a hard-working man by day, but a hard-drinking-hard-fighting-rowdy man by night, until he joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Here he found Jesus and met his future wife, Gracie Williams. By all accounts there was a wondrous change for the better in Alvin that was sincere, instantaneous and permanent.

The impact of war

On June 15, 1917, a draft notice found Alvin in his remote mountain cabin, inviting him to participate in a war a whole world away. Alvin scribbled a note on his notice that read, “Dont (sic) want to fight,” and applied for conscientious objector status. Alvin explained later, “I was worried clean through. I was conflicted about killing. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my bible.”

Don’t sacrifice your valued principles for profit or anything else. (Photo/Public Domain)
Don’t sacrifice your valued principles for profit or anything else. (Photo/Public Domain)

In spite of his beliefs, Alvin did report to Camp Gordon to train with the “All-American Division.” Alvin engaged in many discussions about his doubts with his empathetic commander, who was also a devout Christian. After some soul-searching, Alvin concluded he may indeed have to take lives, but in doing so he would be saving lives. This was advantageous to his unit since Alvin was the best shot in the division.

Alvin was promoted to corporal and shipped out to France, believing his fate rested in the hands of God.

Alvin Becomes “Sgt. York”

On October 8, 1918, York’s battalion was ordered to capture the Chatel-Cherery railroad hub in the Meuse-Argonne area of France. As his unit went “over the top” whistles blaring, German machine guns opened up on them cutting men down “like the long grass before the mowing machine at home,” according to Alvin.

After being pinned down before reaching their objective, York and 16 members of his battalion were ordered to flank the enemy line. These men maneuvered and came up directly behind the Germans and rained down fire upon them, inspiring a prompt surrender.

Machine gunners on a ridge above them, however, turned their guns on York’s patrol and nine Americans went down in a moment, with six killed. With both sergeants down, York recognized immediately what needed to be done and took command. He told his men, “Keep down and cover my move as best you can.”

Without another word, York was on the move alone, cutting through incessant machinegun fire. After flanking the Germans on the ridge, Alvin took a prone shooting position later stating, “Just like I did in the shootin’ matches back home in Tennessee. It was just about the same distance, but the targets were bigger. Every time a German showed himself, I teched him off.”

After York inflicted considerable losses on the Germans, a group launched a bayonet charge on the lone Doughboy. Alvin fired fast and accurately, deliberately dropping the last one in the charge first and working his way up until he dispatched the first one last. He later explained, “That’s how we hunt turkeys.” Alvin didn’t want to discourage any from closing on him by seeing someone in front of them go down.

During this charge York emptied his rifle and smoothly transitioned to his pistol, dropping every charging German. York could have continued the slaughter, but instead called for the surrender of the rest of the still exposed Germans. When they initially refused he said, “I teched off two more,” and the rest surrendered.

On the site today there is a plaque describing York’s feat stating that York, “Armed with his rifle and pistol, his courage and skill, silenced a German battalion of 35 machine guns, killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured 132." For his actions he was promoted to sergeant. He also earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix De Guerre and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Principle above profit

After the war, Gracie and Alvin turned down many offers of large sums of money for York to tell his story, refusing to profit on the backs of the men who died that day. However, he did finally take money for his life story in order to build a high school in his home county of Fentress, Tennessee. The 1941 movie “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper was the highest grossing movie that year and the school, the Alvin C. York Institute, still stands today.

 Sgt. Alvin York’s life left this legacy of leadership lessons:

1. At any point in life one can choose to take action to become a better person.

2. The greatest leaders are those who not only lead by telling but lead by doing.

3. Everyone whose profession puts them in harm’s way must be prepared take the lead at any time.

4. Anyone considering entering protective service must give great thought to whether or not they can take a life in defense of others before they choose such a profession.

5. People inhabiting such professions must finely hone their skills and tactics to be automatically available under the worst of conditions.

6. Hunting can be valid survival training.

7. Train for the sudden assault of multiple attackers.

8. Be decisive when attacked.

9. Possess superior skills, attitude and tactics, as well as a superior position, and you will prevail.

10. Be merciful in victory.

11. Don’t sacrifice your valued principles for profit or anything else.

“Not manpower”

After the Armistice, Brigadier General Julian Robert Lindsey returned to the battlefield with York to investigate the incident because he could hardly believe the witnesses’ description of York’s actions in the Medal of Honor Application. After Lindsey walked the site he turned to York commenting on the imbalance in man-power and asked Alvin incredulously, “How did you do it?”

York replied calmly and with great sincerity, “Sir, it was not manpower. A higher power than manpower guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

Therefore, Sergeant York’s last legacy lesson if you choose to accept it is:

12. Believe in the greatness of God, because he believes in the greatness of you.

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