Corporal Alvin C. York silently led his squad of men through the thick underbrush and dense fog of the Argonne Forest early the morning of October 8, 1918. His regiment had been tasked with charging down Hill 223 and making their way across an open plain towards the Decauville Railroad. Their mission was to cut off this supply line in hopes of pressuring the Germans to surrender. But the plain had been surrounded by machine gun nests, and the Americans were besieged as they made their way across, the gunfire felling them in a way that reminded York of how the mowing machines back home sliced through thick grass. York’s regiment had become hopelessly isolated and pinned down. If they couldn’t silence the constant barrage of artillery and advance, other troops would soon easily be overcome by a German pincer attack.
The commander of York’s Company G, Captain E.C.B. Danforth, ordered 3 of his squads to attempt to slip behind German lines and launch an attack from the rear. Having already lost 7 from their ranks, 17 men – 4 noncommissioned officers, including York, and 13 privates – made their way into the mist and trees in search of the enemy.
What they encountered first were two stretcher bearers, who took off at the sight of the Americans. York and the others gave chase, and the fleeing men led them straight to a camp of Germans calmly eating their breakfast. The Americans had found a Prussian encampment – reinforcements waiting to be called up for battle. Surprised to see the enemy behind the frontlines and caught totally unaware, the Germans dropped their plates, threw up their hands, and surrendered. But as York and the others attempted to round up their new POWs, a German officer yelled to the machine gunners at the front to swivel around and begin firing on the Americans. In moments, 6 were killed and 3 wounded. Included among the casualties were the 3 other noncoms, leaving Corporal York in command.
While the remaining 7 privates took cover, York alone continued to fire at the enemy, methodically picking off the German machine gunners one by one. As soon a soldier popped his head up over the gun emplacements, York would take him out with a single shot.
Not that York was eager to kill the men. After each round he yelled: “That’s enough now! You boys quit and come on down!” None of the Germans took him up on the offer, however, forcing the corporal to continue to quiet one position after another.
Yet York was not out of danger yet. A line of 6 Germans now came sprinting out of the woods in a bayonet charge. Having exhausted his rifle ammunition, York drew his sidearm, a Colt .45, to mount a defense. Taking a lesson learned from his duck hunting days – that picking off the one in the rear rather than the leader caught the group by surprise — York took out the last man in the line first, and then made his way to the front, leveling each German in turn with a single bullet. Of course this method allowed the first man in the line to come dangerously close to reaching the corporal, but with only a yard between he and the last German, York dispatched him with his final shot.
When the corporal turned his attention back to his 7 privates and 20 POWs, he saw that a German commander among the latter had been firing at him the whole time from behind! York disarmed the would-be assassin, and had his men organize the Germans for a march. As the group made their way towards the front lines, York came across a Prussian platoon commander and then a battalion commander as well, both of whom he promptly added to his contingent of prisoners. With the way the thick forest obscured one’s line of sight, the gunfire, and general confusion of the day, these German leaders assumed that York and his privates were merely the advance guard of a much larger force. When the battalion commander asked York how many men he had, York answered confidently: “Oh, I got a-plenty!”
York had the German battalion commander blow his whistle to signal a cease-fire, to keep the Prussians from firing on them as they added more POWs to their entourage and continued to make their way to the front. As York approached the American lines, he had to be sure to call out to let his fellow doughboys know that this large line of Germans was in fact under the control of American soldiers!
York delivered his prisoners to regimental headquarters. It had been a little over 3 hours since the start of Company G’s mission, and in that time York had nearly single-handedly killed 20 of the enemy, silenced 35 machine guns, captured 3 officers and 129 enlisted men, and broken up a battalion that was about to launch a counterattack against the Americans on Hill 223. When he moved the POWs onto division headquarters, General Julian R. Lindsey remarked, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German Army.” “No, sir,” York, replied. “I only got 132 of them.”
For York’s battlefield heroism, he was made a sergeant and awarded 40 of the greatest military awards a soldier can garner on either continent, including the Medal of Honor. When General “Blackjack” Pershing pinned upon him the Distinguished Service Cross, he called York the “greatest civilian-soldier of the war.”
York’s story of bravery, confidence, and resolve is surely remarkable. But what makes it even more extraordinary is what one would have found by thumbing through his military file — a slip of paper which read: “Desires release as he is a conscientious objector.”
One of the most decorated American fighters of WWI had initially not wanted to be a fighter at all.
How Alvin C. York decided between his religious convictions against war and his desire to serve his country can provide every man with a pattern of how to wrestle with the weightiest decisions of our lives.
Alvin C. York was born December 13, 1887 in Pall Mall — a tiny outpost of civilization tucked away in Tennessee’s beautiful Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. Surrounded by hickory and oak-covered mountains, York grew up with ten brothers and sisters in a small two-room cabin. The children’s mother was a sturdy but loving backwoodswoman, their father a kind, hard working, upright farmer and blacksmith who scraped out a meager but sufficient rural living. Young Alvin received only a few months of schooling, and was often by his father’s side as a boy, learning his craft by the forge and accompanying him on nighttime hunting trips with the family’s hounds.
When York was 24, his father died, and with his two older brothers married and moved away, Alvin became the new head of the household. He embraced his responsibility to care for his mother and eight remaining siblings, and took jobs farming, smithing, and building roads to provide for them. But without his father’s watchful and loving influence, York soon developed some rebellious new habits. He started smoking, gambling, swearing, and drinking – chugging bottles of moonshine with a new crowd of rough associates. He spent most days of the week visiting ramshackle saloons where he often got into fights with the other patrons. He was hauled into court for shooting a neighbor’s turkeys for sport and selling weapons illegally. He embarrassed his family by shooting up a tree outside the local church while services were being held and stumbling drunk and belligerent through a community picnic. He was rude, disrespectful, and surly, and now 29, still had no prospects for marriage. York’s mother admonished him to change his ways and lay in bed each night waiting for him to come home from another round of cavorting, praying for him to get his life back on track and desperately worried that his next fight might be his last.
Late one night, as York once again stumbled in drunk through the door of the family cabin, he was surprised to see his mother sitting in a rocking chair by the fire. He hadn’t known she always stayed awake at night waiting for him, and had never seen her up at such an hour. She turned to her son, fixed her gaze upon him, and softly asked: “Alvin, when are you going to be a man like your father and grandfather?” Mother York had pleaded with her wayward son for years to change his ways, but had never been so direct — never before appealed to the examples of his lineage, the men whose blood he shared. York’s father had never drank, swore, or smoked. He had been a pillar in the community, with a sterling reputation among his neighbors for complete honesty and fairness. His grandfather had also been known as a man who always did what was right.
His mother’s simple but piercing question brought York up short. Thinking of these two upright men and his rich heritage of manhood, and then of his three years of drifting, he was hit with the sudden, deep realization of how selfish and irresponsible he had been, how much money and time and trust he had wasted, how empty he felt, and how far he had departed from the man he wished to be, from the man his father would have been proud of. He fell to his knees, put his head into his mother’s lap, and wept. She too began to cry; it was the first time York had ever seen his mother shed tears.
“Mother,” Alvin began, “I promise you tonight that I will never drink again as long as I live. I will never smoke or chew again. I will never gamble again. I will never cuss or fight again. I will live the life God wants me to live.” It was just past midnight on New Year’s Day, 1915, and Alvin York had begun a brand new chapter in his life.
Determined to walk the straight and narrow, York confessed his sins and was saved at a revival meeting weeks later. He threw himself into his new Christian faith with a convert’s zeal – making good on his promise to clean up his life, studying the Bible as often as he could, and admonishing his neighbors to live more piously. He joined a new church – the Church of Christ in Christian Union — and became the congregation’s elder, song leader, and Sunday school teacher.
Life was coming together beautifully for Alvin York. His faith gave him purpose, he got engaged to a woman he thought was the prettiest and most chaste in the whole valley, and he supported his family by working hard at farming, blacksmithing, and other jobs. He spent his Saturdays hunting with his hounds and engaging in marksmanship contests with the other men in town, and his Sundays belting out hymns from the pew. He had never felt so hopeful and fulfilled, and he looked forward to a long life of simple peace and purpose amongst his friends and loved ones.
But on June 5, 1917, the outside world suddenly intruded upon the bucolic peace of the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. York opened his mailbox to find a small, red postcard instructing him to register with his local draft board. The war had come to rural Tennessee and Alvin York had been called upon to serve his country “over there.”
York immediately felt his heart and mind torn asunder. He considered himself a patriotic American and wanted to do his duty. But his church opposed violence and war. How could he ever hope to reconcile these divergent values?
York went to talk to his friend and pastor, Rosier Pile. His reluctance to serve wasn’t because he was afraid to fight or to die or even to leave his fiancée and the happy life he’d been building in the valley, he explained to his mentor. The core of the issue was simply his faith: “I’ve been converted to the gospel of peace and love and of ‘Do good for evil.’ Fight! Kill! I never killed nobody, even in my bad days, and I don’t want to begin now. I turned my back on all those rowdy things and found a heap of comfort and happiness in religion. I joined the church and took its creed with no reservation. I believe in the Bible, and the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ That’s so definite a child could understand it. There’s no way around or out of it.” York had vowed never to fight again – could he break that promise to his mother, his God, and himself? Was it possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen? He discussed that question with Pile for the next hour, and every day after that. And he pondered it alone, spending hours in the woods, thinking, praying, and studying his scriptures.
York knew that no matter what he decided, he had to at least fill out and send back the draft card, so he wrote, “I don’t want to fight” across it and mailed it in. Together with Pile, he composed a letter explaining his desire to be exempted from service on religious grounds and sent it to the county draft board. The board denied his petition, saying that the Church of Christ in Christian Union did not have an official doctrine or declaration on non-violence or war, save their interpretation of the Bible. York filed an appeal at the district level, but was once again turned down.
York could see no way around shipping out – he wasn’t a man who ran away from his problems and he didn’t want the government to stir up trouble in his town by having to come take him by force. He resigned himself to the idea of becoming a soldier, and when the call to service came, he boarded a train for basic training in Georgia. With seemingly no way out, he was determined to pull his own weight, while still holding onto his values as best he could. He embraced the training with full effort and without complaint, and though his fellow soldiers did a whole lot of drinking, smoking, swearing, and going AWOL, York abstained. He didn’t begrudge them their good time, however, and earned their respect by showcasing the unbelievably sharp marksman skills he had honed growing up in Pall Mall and his adroit knowledge of weaponry learned inside his father’s blacksmith shop.
Yet while York tried to concentrate on the task at hand, he would soon find that the most gut-wrenching decision of his life was hardly behind him. While he had decided to let the matter drop, back home, Pile and his mother had continued to work to get him an exemption from service. York was mailed papers from the War Department confirming his status as a conscientious objector; all he had to do was sign them and head home.
But York found that seeing the choice of officially embracing the label of conscientious objector plainly spelled out like that for the first time now filled him with doubt. Was exiting the service really the right decision after all? The rift between York’s commitment to his country, and his commitment to his faith yawned open once again, and he felt completely lost as to what to do.
York spent the next few weeks thinking and praying through the question to figure out what decision to make, but the answer remained frustratingly elusive. He turned over the options again and again in his mind, but in place of clarity, he just felt more and more tangled up in knots.
As basic training drew to a close, the pressure to make a final decision became intense and unavoidable. He decided to talk honestly about his inner turmoil with company commander Captain Danforth and his battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton, who also considered himself a devout Christian. Buxton could see York’s sincere desire to make the right choice, and he made a date for the men to get together and try to sort through the issue as best they could.
A few nights later, York closed his prayer, rose from his knees, and walked from his barracks to the major’s quarters. Inside a sparsely decorated room, York, Buxton, and Danforth sat on camp stools, the Bibles on their laps illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Buxton began by saying: “I don’t want to discuss this question as a battalion commander discussing it with an officer and a private. I want to discuss it as three American citizens interested in a common cause. I respect any honest religious conviction and am here to talk through them man to man.” Then began an earnest dialogue where Buxton and York traded questions and quoted Bible verses back and forth:
Buxton: Why are you opposed to going to war?
York: Because I belong to church that disbelieves in fighting and killing, Major.
Buxton: What sort of church creed do you have that tells you this?
York: The only creed is the Bible, which I have done accepted as the inspired word of God and final authority for all men.
Buxton: What do you find in the Bible that’s against war?
York: The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Buxton: Do you accept everything in the Bible—every sentence, every word—as completely as you accept the sixth commandment?
York: Yes, sir, I do.
Buxton: What about Luke 22? “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.”
York: “If a man smite you on one cheek, turn the other to him.”
Buxton: “For my kingdom is not of this world; but if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.”
York: “They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”
Buxton: “Render unto Caesar’s the things that are Caesar’s.” We must fight for our earthly government whenever its liberties are threatened. Christians have a duty to their leaders.
York spoke of Jesus restoring the ear that Peter sliced off of the high priest. Buxton countered with a violent Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple.
And on it went for more than an hour. But as the discussion wound to a close, far from feeling he had gotten an answer, York felt more confused than ever. He said a short prayer as he rose to leave and shook hands with the major. “I’d like some time to think it over,” he told Buxton. “In the meantime I’ll go on just as I have been, doing everything I’m told to do and trying to be a good soldier.”
“Take all the time you like and come to me any time you need to,” the major replied. Then Buxton sent York on his way with a copy of The History of United States, suggesting that it might be helpful to read up on the lives of founding fathers who had combined piety with a fighting patriotism. York returned to his barracks and collapsing on a cot, pondered the night’s discussion. For the hundredth time, he searched his heart for an answer. But as on every night prior, neither path made itself known as the right one.
York continued to constantly wrestle with whether to become a conscientious objector or ship out as a soldier, but found it difficult to discern an answer in a place of constant noise and interruptions. So he applied for and received a ten-day leave, and made his way back home to the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf and its desperately needed stillness.
As soon as he returned, York spoke once again with Pastor Pile, going over all the scriptures Buxton had used during their discussion. He also talked and prayed with his mother and his fiancée. And yet his cloud of confusion did not abate. As his leave time grew shorter and shorter, his need to make a decision began to feel desperate and all-consuming.
Finally, York decided to seek his answer in complete solitude. He climbed through the mountains to a favorite spot – a rock ledge which sat between two boulders, and offered a view of the entire valley and its winding river. It was here he had pondered his faith and future many times before, and it was here he was determined to get an answer to his question once and for all. Under a canopy of trees and blue sky, he thought over the scriptures that seemed to condone or condemn earthly violence, and he pondered whether God could use war for a greater good — as a violent means to a more peaceful end. Could war be a tool of the peacemaker?
York pondered and prayed all the day long, sometimes silently and sometimes aloud. When the sun set, and the stars emerged brightly in the sky, he built himself a fire and continued to plead with God to show him the right path. As he gazed into the endless night sky, Alvin York finally got his answer:
“As I prayed there alone, a great peace kind of come into my soul and a great calm come over me, and I received my assurance. He heard my prayer and He come to me on the mountainside. I didn’t see Him, of course, but he was there just the same. I knowed he was there. He understood that I didn’t want to be a fighter or a killing man, that I didn’t want to go to war to hurt nobody nohow. And yet I wanted to do what my country wanted me to do. I wanted to serve God and my country, too. He understood all of this. He seen right inside of me, and He knowed I had been troubled and worried, not because I was afraid, but because I put Him first, even before my country, and I only wanted to do what would please Him.”
So He took pity on me and He gave me the assurance I needed. I didn’t understand everything. I didn’t understand how He could let me go to war and even kill and yet not hold it against me. I didn’t even want to understand. It was His will and that was enough for me. So at last I begun to see the light. I begun to understand that no matter what a man is forced to do, so long as he is right in his own soul he remains a righteous man. I knowed I would go to war. I knowed I would be protected from all harm, and that so long as I believed in Him He would not allow even a hair on my head to be harmed.”
As the sun rose over the valley, York offered a prayer of gratitude and climbed down from the mountain. He headed home to pack his bags and begin his journey back to Georgia, and from there, the battlefields of Europe.
A Pattern for Decision-Making: How to Apply the Story of Alvin C. York to Your Own Life
Alvin York was a religious man, with a decision to make that was religious in nature. But try to set aside the details of his faith and his dilemma in order to look at the broader pattern of how he grappled with his question in order to find an answer. Not all men will share York’s religious convictions, or face a choice that puts their faith and their citizenship at odds. But all men can benefit from following the same pattern of answer-seeking when faced with the tough, weighty questions of life. I’m not talking about questions that can be figured out by drawing up a list of pros and cons, like which car to buy or even what to major in (that question can feel weighty at the time, but often doesn’t affect your future as much as you think it will).
Rather I’m talking about the questions that come with profound consequences, the ones that tear you in two – difficult dilemmas where making a decision seems both scary and nearly impossible. You got your girlfriend pregnant and now you’re discussing different options: abortion, adoption, keep the baby? Should you drop out of medical school to start your own business? Should you pull the plug on your comatose wife? Is your girlfriend “the one,” and should you ask her to marry you? Should you join the military or go to grad school?
When faced with a big question where you’re not sure what to do, find your answer by following the pattern of discovery that York laid out:
1. Sort through your motivations.
Before York could even consider what he needed to do, he had to make sure he honestly understood the motivations that had created the dilemma in the first place and were driving him towards each option. He knew he wasn’t scared of violence, and when he looked within he didn’t find that he feared being killed or resented having to leave his old life behind. He could truthfully say that it really was a matter of his faith conflicting with his patriotism.
Oftentimes, we come up with false reasons for settling on certain options. We say that a path just isn’t practical, when we’re really worried about disappointing our parents. We cherry-pick a religious justification as a reason for not doing something, when really we’re just scared to do it or can’t bear to put the responsibility for the decision on ourselves. But before we can choose between different options, we need to honestly understand and assess why we’ve chosen those possible paths in the first place.
2. Ask others for advice.
The first thing York did was to seek counsel about his dilemma from his pastor and mentor. But had he stopped there, with the man who headed the church that preached that war was wrong, his perspective wouldn’t have been very balanced. Instead, he also discussed the issue with Major Buxton, a man who had reconciled his faith with a professional military career. This gave York a look at both sides of the coin.
As you seek an answer to a difficult question, try to gather as much information about the situation and your options as you can. You want to make as informed a decision as possible. One part of this “research” phase is asking for feedback from friends, family, and mentors. They may have a perspective to share that you hadn’t thought of and can help you see your options and beliefs in a different light. If you can find someone to talk to who has been through a very similar situation, all the better. Other people can’t ultimately tell you what to do (and don’t let them – notice that York ultimately made the decision on his own), but they can add greatly to your understanding of the pros and cons and likely consequences of your decision, and what other people might do if they were in your shoes.
3. Study the question out.
Besides asking others for advice, the other part of the information-gathering phase is to study the question as much as possible. This may mean reading your scriptures like York did, and as well as reading the biographies of men who came to the same kind of crossroads. You may want to tuck into a treatise of philosophy, or read up on the city you’re thinking of moving to. If you’re grappling with a medical question, this will mean not only talking to your doctor, but getting a second opinion, and perhaps looking over research studies that have been done on the subject as well. Do your part to gather all of the relevant information available to you so that you can be sure you are making a completely informed decision.
4. Ponder what you have learned.
York spent hours walking through the woods and mulling over what he had studied and what others had shared with him. Do likewise. As you gather as much information about your different options as you can, take time to ponder what you’ve learned. When you read something or talk to someone, what leaves you feeling empty and confused? What feels like it illuminates your mind or makes your heart swell?
5. Pray/meditate in solitude to make the decision.
Even after months of talking it over, pondering, studying, and praying, York felt no clearer about what to do than when his draft card first arrived in the mail. This is typical of big decisions. The research phase of the process may make you better informed, but it won’t necessarily illuminate the right answer in neon lights. For this reason, people often get stuck in the information-gathering phase, both hoping that talking to just one more person will suddenly make things crystal clear, and also fearing to finally pull the trigger.
But once you’ve thoroughly examined the question from all sides, the research phase must come to an end. It’s time to make a decision.
Once you’re ready to receive your answer, you would be well served to follow York’s example of finding a place of quiet and solitude where you won’t be interrupted and can be alone with your thoughts. The stillness of nature provides a perfect setting.
If you’re not a theist, at least of the variety that believes in communication between God and man, then spend your time in solitude meditating on your decision, trying to locate within yourself what you really believe is the best thing to do.
If you are a theist, you’ve probably been praying all along for guidance and wisdom. Now is the time to really plead with God to show you which path to take. Unlike York, I personally believe in not asking the open-ended question of “What should I do?” but rather coming to your own decision based on the studying and pondering you’ve done, and then presenting that choice to God for confirmation or rejection. Do you feel a sense of peace and assurance in your heart like York did, or do you feel a numbness or dullness and a continuation of your confusion?
Whether you use meditation or prayer as the avenue to reach an answer to your question, I believe you can know you’re on the right path when both your heart and mind are in agreement. Each alone can led a man astray. But when they are aligned, you’ve usually found your answer.
6. Move forward with confidence.
It’s important to note that even after York’s inspirational mountaintop experience, doubts about his decision still came to him occasionally. In fact, as soon as he got back to boot camp he found himself wondering again if he was doing the right thing, and even got another letter inquiring about his desire for CO status – talk about temptation to open up the issue all over again! And when he got over to Europe and had to do bayonet drills on dummies, he questioned whether he could really do the same thing to another man. But York didn’t let those occasional doubts get in the way of doing his duty; he would pray and reflect on the answer he had already received and then keep pressing forward. He continued to confidently embrace his choice and strive to be the best soldier he could rather than existing in a state of ambiguity and just getting by. Through his determination, a man who first said, “I don’t want to fight,” became a leader of other men and the hero of the war.
Even if you feel absolutely sure of your decision, you’ll still question yourself sometimes about it just like York did. That’s completely normal. But you can’t retreat from your decision and go back to straddling the fence and constantly asking “what if?” Fence-sitters end up with one piece of themselves down one road and another piece down another; they fail to progress and miss out on the benefits that walking fully down either path would have brought them. Instead, when you have times of doubt, simply reflect upon the decision-making process you already went through to get where you are; if the conditions upon which you made your decision have not radically changed, feel assured that you made the right choice and move forward. That’s what’s so powerful about this process, rather than just making a big decision will-nilly by default, you can always look back and know you did all you could do to come to the best decision possible and continue to embrace that choice and live with confidence.
Sgt. York: His Life and Legacy by John Perry
Last updated: November 26, 2017