Decisive Difference in Leadership
8 October 1918--Argonne Forest, France. It was 0610 and Corporal Alvin York wondered why there was no artillery attack ahead of his unit's impending assault. Nevertheless, the 328th Infantry Regiment "went over the top" of their entrenchments at the designated time to attack German positions and seize the Decauville Railroad.
Taking the railroad was vital since it would sever lateral support and communications behind the German lines and open the way for a broader Allied attack. The assault took the 328th up a funnel-shaped valley, which became narrower as they advanced. Ahead and on each side were steep ridges, occupied by German machine gun emplacements.
About half-way up the valley, the 328th encountered intense German machine gun fire from the left and right flanks. Soon, heavy artillery poured in upon the beleaguered regiment, compelling the American attack to waver and stall.
The blistering German fire took a heavy toll, with survivors seeking cover wherever they could find it. The German guns had to be silenced. Sergeant Bernard Early was ordered to take three squads of men and attack the machine guns. They successfully worked their way behind the German positions and over ran the headquarters of a German machine gun battalion, capturing three officers, and 15 enlisted.1
Early's men were marshaling the prisoners when machine gun fire suddenly peppered the area, killing six Americans and wounding three others. German machine guns had turned to fire on the U.S. soldiers. Corporal York was the senior of the eight remaining U.S. soldiers. Leaving his men under cover, guarding the nineteen prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.
"And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush... As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them.
"There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp-shooting. I don't think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss... 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."2 (Sergeant Alvin York)
Finally, a German major, already in custody, offered to surrender the entire unit to York, which was gladly accepted. At the end of the engagement, York and his seven men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines.
His actions silenced the German machine guns and enabled the 328th Infantry Regiment to renew the offensive.
Subsequently, York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, the Italian Croce di Guerra, the Montenegrin War Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre for his action. Sergeant Alvin York's life is relevant for us since it personifies an example for leaders to emulate. His physical courage on the battlefield was a reflection of his moral courage and spiritual life.
A Lost Soul
Alvin York was born in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1887, third of eleven children born into a poor farming and blacksmith family. When Alvin's father died in 1911, York rebelled.
"I got in bad company and I broke off from my mother's and father's advice and got to drinking and gambling and playing up right smart...I used to drink a lot of moonshine. I used to gamble my wages away week after week. I used to stay out late at nights. I had a powerful lot of fistfights."3 (Alvin York)
Christianity, Character, and Courage
Alvin soon achieved local renown as a sharpshooter. On 1 January 1915, Alvin attended a revival meeting. During the sermon, York felt as if lightning hit his soul4 and he was moved to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From this point on his life was changed forever. He immediately abandoned smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing and brawling.
York took this commitment seriously, grew in his faith, taught Sunday school, led the choir and became an elder in his church.5
York's old friends tried to persuade him to go drinking, but he continually refused. It took a lot of moral courage for York to remain firmly committed to His Lord. But with the strength of the Holy Spirit and his personal resolve, York remained on the Lord's side. This temptation, and his resistance, sharpened York's character and moral courage; directly contributing to his heroic deeds three years later.
Thou Shall Not Kill
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as high as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
As Alvin grew in his faith, the U.S. entered World War I. In June 1917 he received a draft notice. When he read, "thou shall not kill" in the Bible, he believed a Christian could not kill a human. However, he also believed that God ordained governments as instruments to be obeyed.6 Alvin York summed up this dilemma when he said;
"I wanted to follow both (the Bible and the U.S.). But I couldn't. I wanted to do what was right... If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to the reading of my Bible, I weren't a good Christian."7
Alvin York applied for exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector, but his request was denied. This put York into doubt and confusion. He trusted God to get him out of doing what he perceived as contrary to the Bible. As he said, "I was sorter mussed up inside worser'n ever. I thought that the Word of God would prevail against the laws of men..."8
The Lasting Impact of Christian Leaders
York did not understand what was ahead, but trusted God and reported for duty to Camp Gordon, Georgia. Providentially, York's Company Commander, Captain Danforth, and Battalion Commander, Major Buxton, were committed Christians. Alvin shared his concerns with them and both Danforth and Buxton treated York respectfully and took the time to discuss this matter fully.
Buxton and Danforth knew their Bible very well, and dedicated hours of their time to contend with York's doubts. They literally walked through the Bible together to debate the issue. For every verse the commanders used to support their position on warfare, York countered. Finally, one night, Captain Danforth read Ezekiel 33.
"But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman's hand" (Ezekiel 33:6 NAS).
With this, York stood up and said, "All right, I'm satisfied."9 Alvin resolved to serve his country and his God as a soldier. Armed with this assurance, he sought to excel in all that was entrusted to him.
Take Time to Listen & Talk to the Troops
There are several lessons that reach across the generations and speak to us today. The primary one is that without the intervention of Danforth and Buxton, things almost certainly would have turned out differently. Both his company and battalion commanders took valuable time to hear the concerns of this one Private.
"We talked along these lines for over an hour... We did not get angry or even raise our voice. We jes examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter favored war. I believed that the Lord was in that room. I seemed to somehow feel His presence there."10 (Alvin York)
Buxton and Danforth were courageous enough to share their own testimonies and biblical knowledge with him. In our days of political correctness, this is quite a challenge. Surely, we must use common sense, wisdom and discernment in approaching such matters, but we must endeavor to speak the truth boldly when called upon to do so. Because of Danforth and Buxton, York went on to save his regiment from annihilation only months later. What a difference a Christian commander can make upon his soldiers.
God used Sergeant Alvin York to save the lives of hundreds of Germans and Americans on that fateful day of 8 October 1918. In the decades since his heroic deed, the testimony of Sergeant York echoes across the ages to remind those who have inherited his legacy to live up to God's calling.
Like Alvin York, we must endeavor to take our faith seriously, endeavoring to build our character and moral courage "muscles" by choosing to do the right thing every day. York was physically courageous on the battlefield because he was morally courageous in his spiritual life.
God has endowed each of us with distinct talents and gifts to fulfill His purpose for our lives. In the case of Alvin York, his ability as a sharpshooter made the difference during the fierce battle for the Decauville Railroad in October 1918. God has similarly equipped us to fulfill His plan.
Finally, the leadership examples of Major Buxton and Captain Danforth speak to us today. These men gave hours of their precious time to help Private York work through his spiritual doubts. Because of their boldness, patience and understanding, York was able to fully commit himself and ultimately save his regiment from defeat, and many lives in the process.
Although few, if any, of us can expect to be a Sergeant York, surely we can live up to the examples in the bold tradition of Captain Danforth and Major Buxton.
1 Richard Wheeler, ed., Sergeant York and the Great War (Mantle Ministries; Bulverde, TX, 1998) 158.
2 The Diary of Alvin York, 18 October 2001 at http://acacia.pair.com/Acacia.Vignettes/The.Diary.of.Alvin.York.html
3 The Diary of SGT York, 18 October 2001 at http://volweb.utk.edu/school/York/diary.html
4 Interview with Colonel Gerald York, grandson of Alvin York, in April 1996 at the Presidio of Monterey.
5 Wheeler, 58-60.
6 Romans 13.
7 Wheeler, 68.
8 Wheeler, 72.
9 http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/York/biography.html Alvin C. York by Gladys Williams
10 Wheeler, 81-82.