Book Review: Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne - Douglas V. Mastriano
by Bob Seals
“The greatest achievement accomplished by a common soldier in all the armies of Europe!”
-Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 1919
The University Press of Kentucky, 2014
ISBN No.: 978-0-8131-4519-8
Our postmodern era has been a rather difficult one for heroes. Presidents disgraced or impeached for lying under oath, generals having affairs with their subordinates, athletes using performance enhancing drugs, the list of our heroes discovered to have all too human feet of clay is a long and depressing one. Thus, it is always comforting to read a work that affirms ones beliefs about a hero, celebrating the character and values of a common man thrust into notoriety by an extraordinary series of circumstances generated by modern warfare. This is the case with the recently published military biography, ALVIN YORK: A NEW BIOGRAPHY OF THE HERO OF THE ARGONNE, by Douglas Mastriand, from the University Press of Kentucky. The author, a U.S. Army Colonel and combat veteran, gives the reader exactly what the book’s title suggests, a new, and insightful biography of the celebrated East Tennessee hero of World War One, Sergeant Alvin C. York.
SGT York’s compelling story is a familiar tale to laymen and military historians alike. Born in a small, two room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee, in 1887, Alvin C. York was the third of eleven children born to poor parents who struggled in the hills. After the death of his father, from the effects of being kicked by a mule in 1911, Alvin was thrust into the role of head of the household for his widowed mother and younger siblings at home. The pressure of such responsibility affected the young man. York often sought escape shooting, fighting, gambling and drinking in the rough hewn bars and local moonshine plentiful in the mountains. A favorite game with his friends was called “last man standing,” with the winner being the last left standing after a challenging bout of conspicuous consumption. His life was a pointless, wayward existence until he re-discovered his parent’s devout, fundamentalist Christian faith, and developed a romantic interest in a young lady near the York farm. After a revival meeting Alvin was “…transformed from a drunkard, brawler, and malcontent to a leader in the church, a Sunday School teacher, a choir leader, and a respected man in the community.”
His life was seemingly on track; that is, until the United States declared war upon Imperial Germany in April of 1917. Compulsory registration for the draft soon followed for all able bodied men, with York facing a dilemma. Opposed to killing on deeply held religious grounds, Alvin applied for an exemption to the draft. Denied an exemption by the Fentress County Draft Board, the strapping, mustached, red headed six-footer was assigned as an infantryman to the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Infantry Division by February of 1918. A model soldier, York continued to have doubts about killing until effectively convinced by his chain of command that military service and the Christian faith were not incompatible. Service in France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 thrust him into combat and fame. Promoted to Corporal by this point, York took charge during a battalion attack after his Platoon Leader and Sergeant both fell on the battlefield. Determined to stop the killing, York, with his Model 1917 Eddystone rifle, not Springfield, and 1911 Colt Pistol, broke fierce local German resistance, while capturing 132 prisoners. Acclaim followed, to include the Medal of Honor, and numerous Allied decorations. His story was forever popularized in the 1941 movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper winning distinction of his own, the Academy Award, for his portrayal of the Tennessean.
Such an amazing account is almost too good to be true. Over the years a string of detractors, for various reasons, have challenged the facts of York’s heroism that October day in 1918, asking whether his “saga is genuine, or the result of propaganda.” Some questioned his integrity and character, saying in effect he did not do it alone, or the accuracy of the action as commonly understood. Mastriand, in this scholarly, but very readable book, demolishes all and any such questions as to York’s authenticity; he was the “real deal.” The author has accomplished this by years of meticulous and detailed research and scholarship, to include an examination of primary German sources from the “other side of the hill,” such as the 125th Landwehr Wurttemberg and 5th Prussian Guard Regiment; that York fought that day. Additionally, Mastriand, in conjunction with fifty others from eight nations, received French permission to conduct rigorous battlefield archeology, discovering the exact location of York’s action. Recovered cartridges, uniform fragments and German ID tags all confirmed the truth of his remarkable heroism.
In the end Colonel Douglas Mastriand has written what now must be considered the definitive historical account of Sergeant York’s life, to include his heroic efforts for the remainder of his life to build schools and help the needy in the hills of East Tennessee. This book is strongly recommended for any World War One aficionado, or those who simply enjoy a great biography. Listing some 465 sources, with 59 pages of notes, this is an impressive work, and one that future military historians will undoubtedly use to reference the humble but remarkable life of one of the Volunteer State’s finest, Sergeant Alvin C. York, a real American hero.
Review written by Bob Seals.
Copyright © 2014 Bob Seals.
Written by Bob Seals. If you have questions or comments on this
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About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Army Special Forces officer employed by General Dynamics at the Special Operations Mission Training Center on Fort Bragg. He lives on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer, and son, who both ride polocrosse and hunt with the Moore County Hounds. His duties include Stable Sergeant, groom and horse holder for his more accomplished family.
Published online: 11/09/2014.
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