Book Review: Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne by Douglas V. Mastriano is the newest biography of York and will, I am sure, be the definite resource on him for years to come.

Alvin York was the third of eleven children born to a farming family in Pall Mall, TN in the late 1800s. The children had very little education because they were needed to help at home. Alvin was the oldest child at home when his father died, so he took on the responsibility to care for the family. He was a hard worker, but he was prone to drinking and fighting even though he was a church-goer. In his late twenties he was saved at a revival service in his church, and his life turned around.

When Alvin was drafted at the age of 29, he tried to register as a conscientious objector. He believed, as did his church, that “Thou shalt not kill” included war. His application and an appeal were rejected because the church did not have an official policy against war. Once in the Army, Alvin kept his feelings quiet as long as he could because he knew the taunts and accusations of cowardice he would receive from the other men. Finally he told his superior officers, Captain Danforth and Major Buxton. He had proved himself as a hard worker and a steady character, so both officers felt he was in earnest. Both were Christians, and one suggested they talk it out not as private and officers, but as Christian brethren. In a thoroughly cordial conversation, Alvin brought up verses that seemed to oppose military action while the others brought up verses that support it. Alvin asked for a leave to think and pray and went home for ten days. After a considerable time at a particular mountain where he liked to go and pray, he went back to the Army at peace about being a soldier.

On October 8, 1918, Alvin, a corporal at this point, fought the Germans with his battalion in the Argonne forest in France.  They were fired at by a German machine gun. Of the seventeen Americans, six were killed and three were wounded. York was the ranking officer left standing. York, a crack shot from years of hunting, took out the machine gun operator, six Germans coming at him with bayonets, and ended up capturing 132 German soldiers as prisoners of war. Later he was promoted to sergeant and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

When York came home to fame and acclaim, he did not want to make a profit off his service. “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he would say.

York returned to his farm in TN and married the girl who had waited for him, Gracie. With his eyes opened from his travel and experience, York wanted to make improvements for his people. He advocated for paved roads into the area and built schools. He accepted invitations to encourage troops and the war effort and to talk about his faith, but he didn’t like to talk about his exploits, which was what most people wanted to hear. He only relented when doing so might help earn money for the schools he was building: he never profited from such money for himself. Jesse Lasky was a movie producer who pursued York for 23 years, trying to get the rights to his story to make a film. When events were steaming up before WWII, York was one of the advocates for the US entering the fray. He felt Hitler needed to be stopped, as soon as possible. Many Americans, including influential ones like Charles Lindbergh, felt that the US should stay out of the fighting. Lasky finally convinced York that a film about his life would not only help young men who faced some of the same struggles he had, but it would inspire patriotism that would help support the WWII effort. York agreed and used the proceeds to fund an interdenominational Bible school. The film Sergeant York was Lasky’s most successful film, earning Gary Cooper an Academy Award for his portrayal of York. I enjoyed reading some of the background information about the film and the differences between the film and real life.

Some of York’s most inspiring words were spoken at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, May 1941:

There are those in our country who ask me…”You fought to make the world safe for Democracy. What did it get you?” Let me answer them now. It got me twenty-three years of living in an America where humble citizens from the mountains of Tennessee can participate in the same ceremonies with the president of the United States. It got me twenty-three years of living in a country where liberty is stamped on men’s hearts. By our victory in the last war, we won a lease on liberty, not a deed to it. Now after 23 years, Adolf Hitler tells us that lease is expiring, and after the manner of all leases, we have the privilege of renewing it, or letting it go by default….we are standing at the crossroads of history. Important capitols of the world will either be Berlin and Moscow or Washington and London. I for one pref Congress and Parliament to Hitler’s Reichstag and Stalin’s Kremlin. And because we were for a time side by side, I know this unknown soldier does too. We owe it to him to renew that lease of liberty he helped us to get.

I’m surprised that the concept of having a lease on liberty, which has to be renewed from time to time, rather than a deed, has not been quoted more often.

Mastriano goes into detail concerning York’s early life in Pall Mall, his struggles, his service, and the events in his life after the war. Some stories in York’s time exaggerated his efforts, claiming that his victory was single-handed, or at least nearly so. Neither York nor the Army made these claims, and York credited the other soldiers for their efforts and ultimately God for His enabling and protection. But the attention on him caused pushback from others. Some thought he seemed too good to be true and suggested his exploits were created or exaggerated by the military for propaganda purposes. Mastriano, a military man himself, takes great care to detail and substantiate everything concerning York. His efforts even extended to traveling to France and making an extensive search over the area where York fought on October 8, 1918. Even though the location and details were substantiated before York’s Medal of Honor, some have argued that the lack of the known spot where York fought raised a question mark over the validity of the claims made in his behalf. A wrong map that was discredited yet still placed in the archives contributed further confusion. Mastriano spent twelve years and thousands of hours researching York, traveling, and even searching for artifacts in the Argonne. His findings were scientifically studied and authenticated, resulting in the Sergeant York Historic Trail and Monument.

Though I have never seen the Sergeant York film, I had heard of it and was aware of the barest details of York’s story. My interest was piqued by hearing a series on York on the Adventures in Odyssey radio program, which I like to listen to while doing dishes. When I searched for a biography, I was delighted to find this one. I listened to the audiobook, but if I had been thinking, I would have gotten the print version for the pictures and maps and such. Usually when you purchase a book from Audible, you can get the Kindle version at a lesser price, but the Kindle version of this book is the most expensive I have ever seen. I just now found it in our library system, so I’ll look for it next time I go there.

York’s is an inspiring story not just for his military victory, but for his character. I’m happy to have read and learned more about him.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Book’s You Loved)

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

  1. I enjoyed this! Really interesting that we’re each reviewing a WWI book today 🙂 I’ve never heard of York, which makes me extra glad to learn about him. Yes, the lease on liberty concept is a great one. Seems like we’re currently taking that lease way too much for granted.

  2. The movie was one of our family’s favorites, and last year I showed it to my 7th graders-it’s hard to find something clean and age appropriate for them that helps them picture what that time was like. It was also really good for them to listen to him wrestle with the concept of war, a question that people wrestle with today. The book sounds interesting-I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Thanks for sharing your inspiring post on the #LMMLInkup this past week. I love the movie on York. Have you seen it? His story was so inspiring.

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