October 1918 was a busy month for the U.S. Army. Of the some two million doughboys fighting in France, more than half of them, 1.2 million, were conducting the largest, and last, American offensive of The Great War.
From Sept. 26 to Nov. 11, American soldiers and Marines were engaged in the biggest, and costliest, battle ever fought by Americans. Its name was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and during its 15 days, many important events in U.S. military history happened.
Early on, from Oct. 2-7, 600 men of the 308th and 307th Infantry Regiments of the 77th Division got lost in the Argonne Forest and were surrounded by Germans. They couldn’t get out, and relief forces couldn’t get in. At the end of the five-day ordeal, only 200 men were still alive.
Lt. Frank Luke of the Air Service became the first American pilot to receive the Medal of Honor when he shot down 18 German planes in 18 days, giving him the nickname “Terror of the Autumn Skies.” But, alas, he became a German’s victory and his family received the medal posthumously.
On Oct. 8, a U.S. patrol from G Co., 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, was operating near Chatel-Chehery, France, when it became pinned down by German machine gun fire. When senior sergeants became casualties, Corp. Alvin York, a semi-literate sharpshooter from the hills of north-central Tennessee, became the leader. As a German lieutenant led a charge at the Americans, York began shooting the 15 men beginning with the last one until only a few were left and surrendered.
As the eight American survivors began leading the Germans toward American lines, York shot more and more Germans, totaling between 20 and 25, depending on the source. By the time the group reached U.S. lines, there were 132 Germans and 35 captured German machine guns.
Once his feat was verified, the 31-year-old York was immediately promoted to sergeant and recommended for the Medal of Honor. The Supreme Allied Commander, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, awarded him a high French medal, and said he was “the outstanding soldier of the entire war.”
York had entered the Army as a conscientious objector, but was convinced during basic training that the Bible sanctioned military service. After the war, he settled on a farm in his beloved Tennessee hills.
His family was from Pall Mall, near the Kentucky state line, and although he died in 1964, the year the first Medal of Honor was awarded in Vietnam to Leavenworth’s retired Col. Roger Donlon, several of the farm buildings are still there and serve as a museum for his artifacts.
A fellow military collector visited it a few years ago, and knowing that York is a favorite of mine, asked one of the caretaker’s family members for a small rock from the silo. It is in a frame with information about its source, and was on display at last month’s Veterans Salute in Independence, Missouri.
York became a teetotaler when he found religion, and when I put him in a display, I have an empty WW I wine bottle with these words: “Everyone knows that Corp. Alvin York was a teetotaler. But this French wine bottle was found near his unit’s position, and if perchance he consumed it prior to his exploits on 8 Oct. 1918, it might explain why he killed 25 and captured 132 Germans, along with 35 machine guns. Go, Alvin!”
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.