Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children. In his early adult life he had a history of violent behavior while drunk and several arrests. A revival meeting at the end of 1914 led him to a conversion experience on January 1, 1915. His new faith turned him from drink and instilled in him a non-violent creed. As such, when he received his draft notice for World War I, he initially tried to claim conscientious objector status.
Deeply troubled by the conflict between his pacifism and his training for war, he spoke at length with his company commander, Captain Edward Danforth and his battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Buxton, a devout Christian himself. Citing Biblical passages about violence, they forced York to reconsider the morality of his participation in the war. Granted a 10-day leave to visit home, he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe, as committed to his new mission as he had been to pacifism.
During an attack by his battalion to secure German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, France, on October 8, 1918, York noted in his diary:
The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from... 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.
Under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early, four non-commissioned officers, including recently promoted Cpl. York, and thirteen privates were ordered to infiltrate behind the German lines to take out the machine guns. The group worked their way behind the Germans and overran the headquarters of a German unit, capturing a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack against the U.S. troops. Early's men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six of his fellow soldiers and wounding three others including Sergeant Early.
The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the seven remaining U.S. soldiers. As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns. He noted:
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. I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush... 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. 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.
During the assault, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him with fixed bayonets. York had fired all the rounds in his M1917 Enfield rifle, but drew his .45 Colt automatic pistol and shot all six soldiers before they could reach him. The commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, emptied his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted.
By the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines.
His actions silenced the German machine guns and were responsible for enabling the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad.
York was promptly promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism.
A few months later, following a thorough investigation, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented to York by the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. The French Republic awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. Italy awarded him its Croce di Guerra and Montenegro its War Medal. He eventually received nearly 50 decorations. His Medal of Honor citation reads:
After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machinegun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.
During World War II, York attempted to re-enlist in the Army, however at fifty-four years of age, overweight, near-diabetic, and with evidence of arthritis, he was denied. Instead he was given the honorary rank of Colonel in the Army Signal Corps and he toured training camps and participated in bond drives in support of the war effort. He also raised funds for war-related charities, including the Red Cross. He served on his county draft board, and when literacy requirements forced the rejection of large numbers of Fentress County men, he offered to lead a battalion of illiterates himself.
Although York served during the war with the honorary rank of Colonel in the Army Signal Corps and as a Colonel with the Seventh Infantry of the Tennessee State Guard, newspapers continued to refer to him as "Sgt. York."