In Search of Sergeant York

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MURFREESBORO, TN - He was a man of great faith and conviction. He also proved to be a crack shot.

A soldier with the American Expeditionary Force in France, he is credited with single-handedly capturing 132 German soldiers. However, the actual battle site where he performed his heroic deeds was lost over time.

Now 88 years later, the World War I battlefield where Sergeant Alvin C. York won the Medal of Honor has at last been found.

After several years of study and field work, a team of researchers believe they have found the French battlefield where York of the 328th Infantry won his nation's highest decoration on October 8, 1918.

Recovery of a U-S Collar Disk -- The Big Clue

The research team led by geographer Tom Nolan, a member of the geosciences faculty at Middle Tennessee State University, and Michael Birdwell, an Alvin York scholar and member of Tennessee Tech University's history faculty, recently uncovered more than 1,400 artifacts at the site in Châtel - Chehéry, France.

The discovery of a United States Army collar disk stamped '328 Infantry G,' York's own company, added to the evidence gathered by the team. Soldiers in the U-S Army during the First World War wore these types of brass disks on the collars of their uniforms to often denote in what branch of the army, battalion or company they belonged.

The team scoured the French location with metal detectors to find and recover the treasure-trove of artifacts. The artifacts are described as items discarded by German soldiers when they surrendered to York and his men. The items include German gas masks, German gas mask filters, German bayonets, Mauser rifle bolts, fired German and U.S. rifle rounds, and spent Colt.45 rounds.

The research team relied on advanced mapping technology In their efforts to locate the York battle site.  Nolan used GIS with information obtained from historic French and German battle maps as well as maps annotated by York's commanding officers, Col. G. Edward Buxton and Maj. E.C.B. Danforth.

They also used written accounts by both the German and American participants. This information was then superimposed upon the modern landscape to help the researchers focus and better target their metal-detection fieldwork.

"While historic interpretation and surface archaeology were both important, it was geography and GIS that provided the means to interpret that information and relate it to the modern landscape," observed Nolan. "Without geography and GIS, we would not have been able to do what we did, meaning find the York battlefield site."

Legendary Feats of Extraordinary Heroism

On October 8, 1918 in the Argonne Forest, York's battalion was ordered to advance across a valley and take two hills from the German forces. At this point, the combined American squads, including Corporal York's, was 17 men. Assigned to the enemy's left, the squad commanders decided to flank the enemy and try to make their approach from the rear.

During the advance, the Americans stumbled across the headquarters of the machine gun regiment.  The Germans were eating breakfast at the time and were taken totally by surprise. Most of the enemy troops surrendered, but one German shot at York, who quickly killed the him with a single shot.

The Americans disarmed and organized their prisoners. However, by this time the enemy machine gunners on the hill had been alerted.  The machine guns opended fire taking out nine Americans, including an officer.  This left Corporal York in charge and the action would prove to be the only German high point in the battle.

As the machine gun raked the American troops, York was standing out in the open. Almost immediately, he began to exchange shots with the enemy without seeking cover.  The corporal quickly saw that in order for the Germans to swing their guns into place, they had to show their heads above their trench. He later wrote in his diary, "Every time I saw a head I just touched it off. 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."

"Suddenly a German officer and five men jumped out of the trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. I changed to the old automatic and just touched them off, too. I touched off the sixth man first, then the fifth, then the fourth, then the third, and so on. I wanted them to keep coming. I didn't want the rear ones to see me touching off the front ones. I was afraid they would drop down and pump a volley into me."

A German major who had already been captured had seen enough. The English-speaking officer told York, "If you don't shoot any more, I will make them surrender."  All but one of the Germans gave up. That one German even managed to throw a small hand grenade before York killed him.

The eight American soldiers now faced the overwhelming task of leading more than 80 prisoners through enemy lines. York put the German major at the head of the column, placing his Colt.45 against the enemy officer's back. The seven other men then surrounded their prisoners, keeping a watchful eye.

As York and his men led the captured Germans back to their own lines, German soldiers and other machine gunners attempted to fire on the Americans. York forced the German officer to order them to surrender. All but one willingly gave up.  According to York, "I made the major order him to surrender twice. But he wouldn't. And I had to touch him off. I hated to do it. But I couldn't afford to take any chances and so I had to let him have it."

By the time York and his small squad reached the safety of the American lines they had captured 132 Germans, including three officers. Word quickly spread that York had single-handedly "captured the whole German army." An Army inspection of the battle scene revealed 28 dead German soldiers.

The Army's Investigation of the Battle

According to the official Army report, York's description of the battle was accurate though "York's statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame."

A general once asked York how he managed to accomplish his feat.  York told the officer, "Sir, it is not man power. A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do."

For his bravery, York was awarded the Medal of Honor and was also promoted to the rank of sergeant. 

Thirteen years later, Warner Brothers released the movie entitled Sergeant York. It starred Gary Cooper, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the backwoods soldier.

York donated his profits from the movie to the Alvin C. York Institute, which he had established in 1926 to provide educational opportunities denied him to the boys and girls of Fentress County, Tennessee.

York was a true American hero and his story still inspires many Americans today.

French Officials to Erect Historic Marker

At present, the research team is identifying and cataloging all of the artifacts from the battlefield for museum display.

As a result of the team's find, French authorities intend to erect an historic marker at the location of the machine-gun nest overlooking the once-lost spot where Pall Mall, Tennessee, native York fired his weapons and where the nine soldiers were wounded or killed.

"They are planning to dedicate the marker next October at a ceremony to be attended by the research team, and hopefully, by representatives from the State of Tennessee and the presidents of Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Technological University in October 2007," Birdwell said.

The Sergeant York Project, Lisa Rollins, Middle Tennesee State University, Tennessee Tech University, New American Magazine and the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation contributed to this story.

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