America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

The Exploits of Sergeant York

ALVIN YORK came from the mountains of Tennessee. He was the second elder in the Church of Christ and Christian Union. His Church is opposed to any form of fighting, and, when York was drafted into the World War, the members wanted him to ask for exemption on the ground that fighting was against his conscience.

But York's patriotism was as great as his religion. He asked one of those who had been urging him, "Suppose some man should come into your house, maltreat your wife, and murder your children, what would you do?"

"I think I would kill him," was the reply. After that they let him alone. He went to Camp Gordon, at Atlanta, Georgia, and began to train for a soldier.

But York was still troubled about war and the killing of men. His religious convictions worried him a great deal, in spite of the fact that his country was at war. He often discussed the matter with his Captain, and they read the Bible together, sometimes far into the night.

At last, after one long talk, and the reading of many passages of Scripture bearing on the subject, York was convinced by Captain Danforth that the killing of one's enemies was in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

"All right," exclaimed the big mountaineer, "I am satisfied." From that time, especially after his company went to France, he threw himself with all his heart into the war.

Up in his mountain home, York had learned to be very expert with rifle and pistol. His aim was certain, his fire was rapid, and, when he pulled the trigger, it meant sure death. He had won many prizes shooting at turkeys and targets. Once, he stopped a fight, showing his skill to a man who was quarreling with him, by deliberately shooting the head off a lizard running on a tree. In a contest with an officer, York, who had become a Sergeant, hit a penny match-box at forty paces every time.

He had worked on a farm, and as a blacksmith, and had developed a powerful body. He was six feet high, weighed over two hundred pounds, and had a lot of red hair.

On October 8, 1918, the chance came for Sergeant York to show the material of which he was made. His battalion was in the Argonne section, in France. The men left their position on Hill 223, in order to attack the Decauville railroad, nearly two miles to the westward. The battalion had to pass through a valley, on both sides of which were hills from which the German machine-guns poured a deadly fire into their ranks. In front was another hill filled with machine-guns. Thus the battalion was caught in a fire from three directions.

York's platoon was on the extreme left. The line seemed to melt away before the enemy's bullets. The squad to which York belonged was ordered to put the machine-guns out of action.

The men leaped to their task, and advanced toward the hill. There were sixteen in all. Sergeant York and the others rushed up the steep slope, under cover of bushes, slipping behind trees and hiding in the ditches. The enemy's fire was fierce and dangerous. Fortunately, the men escaped observation, and pursued their way back of the lines.

They came upon an old trench, formerly used by the French, and into it they dropped for protection. It led over the hill, and behind the nest of machine-guns. Single file, and cautiously, they crept along, now in the trench and now under the bushes, keeping a sharp lookout for Germans. At last, they came to a little stream on the other side of the hill, and ran into a party of twenty or thirty Germans, holding a conference and getting ready to eat.

The Americans yelled, and opened fire, as if a whole regiment had arrived. The astonished Germans, not expecting an attack, and being unprepared, held up their hands, shouting "Kamerad," in token of their surrender.

"Who are you? Are you English troops?" shouted the German Major.

"No. We are a force of Americans," was the reply, which seemed to bring no great surprise to the Major.

Before arrangements could be made to secure their prisoners, the machine-guns opened fire, not thirty yards away. The Americans had been discovered. The valley became a bedlam of shrieking sounds, as the rain of bullets whistled by. The German prisoners dropped to the ground, and hugged the earth for protection from the fire of their own guns. The Americans followed their example, but not before a number of their party were killed.

By this time, the sixteen men had been reduced to eight—Sergeant York and seven others. It took the whole seven to guard the prisoners who were lying down, and afraid to move for fear of the awful machine-gun fire passing overhead. York alone remained to fight the enemy. He was lying in a narrow path, leading toward the guns, the prisoners directly before him, the gun-fire barely missing him where he lay. The enemy could not lower their fire without killing their own men. But York was as cool as though he was at a shooting-match in the mountains. He began potting the Boches in their fox-holes, from behind the trees, and under shelter of the logs. With every shot, he brought down an enemy. His fire was deadly.

"If I had moved, I would have been killed. The prisoners saved me, for the Boches had to fire high to keep from hitting their own men," said York afterwards.

Finally, a Lieutenant and seven men rose from a machine-gun, and charged down the hill toward the place where York lay. He shot all eight of them before they ran half-way. As soon as the Germans saw the Lieutenant and his men drop, the battle quieted down, for they were amazed at the way their men were being killed, and did not know what force was attacking them. They had no idea York was doing it all.

The Major of the prisoners called out, "Don't shoot any more, and I'll make them surrender." With that, York lowered his pistol, and the Major raised his hands.

The Boches came down the hill in droves. Their arrival made a list of ninety prisoners. York and the others placed them in columns, and marched off toward the American lines.

"How many men have you in your command?" asked the Major. "I have plenty to hold you prisoners," answered York. "Drop your guns and equipment and move on." The Germans obeyed promptly.

On the way back, they ran into other machine-gun nests. Using their prisoners as screens, the Americans made the Major demand the surrender of them as fast as they were discovered, under penalty of having his men shot by their own machine-guns. It soon became a procession.

In this way, York and his few companions added to their list as they went along, until, when they arrived at their destination, and turned over their prisoners, they had one hundred and thirty-two! The Major was the gloomiest man in Europe when he found out that he had surrendered to a handful of Americans. York himself had killed twenty men with his own pistol, and thirty-five machine-guns had been put out of action!

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