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This Day in History: One-time pacifist Alvin York earns a Medal of Honor

This day in 1918, then-Corporal Alvin York distinguishes himself for bravery in a battle near Chatel-Chehery, France. The one-time pacifist took out a machine gun nest!

He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

York was born in December 1887, the son of Tennessee farmers. He worked the farm and did not receive much in the way of an education. But he learned a skill that would come in handy later: He learned to hunt, and he became a crack shot.

After his father’s death in 1911, York went through a difficult period. He drank too much, and he was sometimes in trouble with the law. A conversion experience in 1915 turned his life around. “And that is the greatest victory I ever won,” he later said. “It’s much harder to whip yourself than to whip the other fellow, I’m a-telling you, and I ought to know because I done both.”

His turnaround was dramatic. He ended up joining a Christian denomination that was very strict: no gambling, no drinking, and no swearing. Did you guess the last part already? They were also pacifists!

How did a pacifist find himself with a Medal of Honor?!

It began with the draft, of course. When he received his summons, York was very troubled. He tried and failed to get a “conscientious objector” exemption, and he spent hours talking to one of his commanders about his concerns. In the end, York took leave to ponder the matter.

“I was bothered a plenty as to whether it was right or wrong,” he later said. “I knew that if it was right, everything would be all right. . . . And I prayed and prayed. I prayed two whole days and a night out on the mountainside. And I received my assurance that it was all right, that I should go, and that I would come back without a scratch.”

York was deployed to Western Europe. On October 8, 1918, he found himself with a small contingent of men who were trying to destroy a particularly problematic machine gun nest. The American group worked their way behind enemy lines, taking prisoners as they went. They made it most of the way before the Germans saw them and opened fire. Six Americans were killed immediately. Three were wounded.

Command of the remaining seven men now fell to York. His Medal of Honor citation reports that York responded by charging “with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon.”

And now his hunting skills would come in handy.

“At first I was shooting from a prone position,” he later wrote, “that is lying down; jes like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn’t miss a German’s head or body at that distance. And I didn’t. Besides, it weren’t no time to miss nohow.”

York began to snipe at the Germans, taking them out one by one. “I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on,” he later reported. “That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. . . . I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.”

Every once in a while, York “hollered to [the Germans] to come down and give up. I didn’t want to kill any more’n I had to.”

Finally, the Germans surrendered. When the dust had settled, York and his men had captured 4 officers and 128 men. More than twenty Germans lay dead.

In some ways, York’s bigger accomplishments came AFTER he received a Medal of Honor for these actions, including his advocacy of educational opportunities and support of World War II efforts.

Naturally, those are stories for another day.

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