American History

Saving Sergeant York

[SCENE: Doughboys tramping in mud]

MOTORCYCLE COURIER: HEY SARGE! York by himself captured 132 Germans!

SERGEANT: GUY NAMED YORK! Captured 132 Heinies all by his lonesome!

BUDDY 1: How’d he do it?

BUDDY 2: Musta surrounded ’em!

BUDDY 3: A whole division and a bunch of high officers!

BUDDY 4: …How could one guy…

DOUGHBOY IN DUGOUT TO NONCOM SOAKING HIS FEET: Say, Sarge, d’ya hear?

York captured the Kaiser!

This scene, from the hit 1941 Warner Bros. movie Sergeant York, summarizes American reactions to an exploit late in World War I in northern France that earned Alvin C. York the Medal of Honor. In the century since this reluctant soldier braved machine gun fire to pick off 20 or more foes, persuading 128 other German soldiers and four officers to surrender, the York saga has engendered pride and puzzlement. Did he really do it? By himself?

The media lionized York as a hell-raising Tennessee mountaineer who got religion, a conscientious objector who found in his faith a reason to fight. Some, even doughboys who fought beside him, called him a liar. In 1929 the German government tried to discredit York; in the 1970s, amid post-Vietnam malaise, iconoclasts derided the 1918 incident as morale-boosting propaganda.

In the 1990s, another American soldier, Douglas V. Mastriano, decided to test the truth of the York legend. Since seeing the movie as a boy, Mastriano has felt a fascination for Alvin York. During 30 years as an Army intelligence officer, including tours in Germany, service in the 1991 Gulf War, and later in Afghanistan, Mastriano combed archives, studied official maps he came to see were inaccurate, and organized excavations at the battle site, locating important artifacts and even the spots where York fought. Mastriano’s work substantiated much of the story.

“I tried to match up the American and German accounts and ended up narrowing the search area down to a 100-meter square,” said Mastriano, who recently retired from the Army as a colonel and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District. “The rest is history.”

Mastriano’s archaeological team pinpointed locations from which York fired shots that killed at least 20 Germans. The search, penetrating several feet of plant debris and topsoil, turned up cartridges from weapons like those York carried, scraps of American uniforms, and items belonging to German units and individual soldiers involved. “We’ve become so jaded,” said Mastriano, who in 2014 published Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. “If there are heroes out there we want to tear them down…I think it’s good not to accept everything as fact, but at the same time let’s not always look for reasons not to believe.”

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