In Sgt. York’s Shadow – How History Forgot the Comrades of America’s Legendary WWI Hero

A dramatized depiction of Alvin York’s exploits of Oct. 8, 1918. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)“Ten of York’s comrades returned home to watch as their heralded platoon-mate became the subject of books, an autobiography, and even a Hollywood blockbuster.”

By James Carl Nelson

ON OCT. 8, 1918 a lone American doughboy performed a feat of heroism that would make him a legend.

Despite being torn between his own pacifist religious convictions and his duty as a trained killer for the United States Army, the 30-year-old Tennessee native single-handedly ended the lives of an estimated 25 enemy soldiers, their bodies left splayed across the edge of a deep forest ravine one kilometre west of the village of Chatel-Chehery. One-hundred and thirty-two more men became his prisoners in the same bloody action; 35 machine guns were also seized.

His name was Alvin Cullum York, and even before the poor mountain man’s return to the U.S. in May 1919 he had become the most famous soldier in the world, the subject of numerous worshipful newspaper and magazine articles that branded him in many instances as a “one-man army.”

That was unfortunate—not only for Alvin York, but for the 16 other soldiers who fought alongside him in that ravine, six of whom died in a sharp burst of German machine-gun fire before York coolly wielded his rifle, and then his pistol, with such deadliness that the German commander ordered his men to surrender.

York returns to the hill in France where he performed his famous acts of heroism. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Ten of York’s comrades returned home to watch as their heralded platoon-mate became the subject of books, an autobiography, and even a Hollywood blockbuster that earned screen idol Gary Cooper an Academy Award. Though York had early on told all suitors in the press and Hollywood that his uniform wasn’t for sale, in the end he was more than willing to earn money from his fame, some of which he put to use building schools in his hometown of Pall Mall, Tennessee.

Those survivors had varying roles in the events at Chatel-Chehery.

The day before to Oct. 8 action, the first battalion of the 328th Infantry Regiment, of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Division, began a push west across Hill 223 towards the German line at the eastern edge of the Argonne Forest. The second battalion relieved the first early on Oct. 8, and the advance was resumed in the face of numerous hostile machine guns.

Before long, the withering resistance led to the death of platoon leader Lt. Kirby Stewart. Taking charge, Sgt. Harry Mason called Acting Sergeant Bernard Early, a pugnacious Irish immigrant and former barkeep, over and told him to take his sixteen men — among them Acting Corporal Alvin York — and sweep around the German left flank.

The patrol veered off to the south, and crested Hill 244 before descending the other side. Continuing to the west-southwest, it soon found itself behind the German line, where two the men encountered two enemy medics. The pair took off after being sighted; the patrol gave chase.

U.S. Troops in action. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)The murderous German machine-gun fire continued to pour into the stymied men of the 328th Regiment to the north and east on Hill 223. Soon, several of the patrol members that had followed the medics into a ravine saw their astonishment a large complement of German soldiers, most lounging about with their weapons out of reach while others were being harangued by one of their officers.

The advance men came back to the patrol with word of their find; Early ordered an attack, and the patrol, spread across a think creek that flowed north-south, crashed from the think undergrowth and, firing indiscriminately, surprised the German force to such a degree that its commander, Lt. Paul Vollmer, quickly surrendered.

But as the prisoners were being lined up, unseen German gunners on the ridge above shouted for their comrades to get down. In a split second, machine-gun fire raked the patrol, and some of its prisoners, killing six Americans: Ralph Weiler, Carl Swanson, Murray Savage, Maryan Dmowski, William Wine, and Fred Wareing. Early was severely wounded, and one Corporal William B. Cutting — whose actual name was Otis Merrithew – and Private Mario Muzzi suffered less-serious injuries.

The Germans continued to fire, and some in the patrol fired back while other survivors tried to keep out of sight as they watched over their prisoners. It was then that York, concealed behind a gaggle of Germans, sprang to action, shooting anything that moved on the ridge above, and then using his pistol to ward off a bayonet charge, killing half a dozen of the attackers, and mortally wounding its leader.

At that, the German officer, Vollmer, unnerved, offered once more his surrender if York would stop shooting. And once more the Germans—about 90 men—were lined up and marched back the way the patrol had come to the American lines.

When the force of Germans and Americans arrived at battalion headquarters on Hill 223, the doughboys were asked who was in charge. All agreed that York, as the only unscathed noncom, was their man. He led his surviving mates, and a now-growing hoard of prisoners, to regimental headquarters at Chatel-Chehery and then brigade headquarters farther south at Varennes.

York and the unwounded men of the patrol went on fighting with the 328th Regiment until they were relieved on Oct. 31; unknown to York, word of his earlier deed was spreading through the 82nd Division and beyond. Soon York would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Alvin York’s homecoming in 1919 made national headlines. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)When the story reached the ears of Saturday Evening Post, scribe George Pattullo,  interviewed York and his commanders. Meanwhile, the army looked into whether York, who had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, should be considered for a Medal of Honor.

To that end the army’s investigation involved taking affidavits from others in the patrol, among them Private Percy Beardsley, who had wielded a light French machine gun during the ordeal in the ravine, and Privates Joseph Konotski, Patrick Donohue, Michael Sacina, George Wills. Private Feodor Sok, meanwhile, agreed with their attestations.

York arrived home on May 22, 1919 to find that he was a hero. Pattullo’s account of his feat had graced the cover of the two-million circulation Post on April 26, and spawned such copycat newspaper headlines: “Lone Tennessee Boy Wipes Out Battalion.”

It would be nice to say that York et al went on to live happily ever after, and in some instances that was approximately so. But even as the S.S. Ohioan carrying York’s company arrived in New York, a whispering campaign had begin casting some doubt on York’s reputation as a “one-man army.”

The New York Times reported as much in May 1919, saying that while the men on the ship were “unanimous” in their praise for York, “several officers expressed regret that other members of York’s patrol squad which surprised the Germans at Hill 223 in the Argonne Forest, had not won recognition.”

In fact, Beardsley, Konotski, Wills, Sacina, and Donohue were cited for their “splendid conduct” by the 164th Brigade. Missing from the equation, though, was Bernard Early, who had led the patrol into that ravine and taken the initial surrender of the Germans, and Otis Merrithew, a.k.a. William Cutting.

On the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War, Gary Cooper stared in the war film Sergeant York.Both were recovering from their wounds while the army performed its investigation of the Oct. 8 action; both would, to different degrees, become thorns in the side of York and cast doubt on the army’s official line about York’s heroism.

Early, for one, had arrived back in the U.S. on Jan. 31, 1919 only to find, to his amazement, that York, who had resisted taking up arms while at Camp Gordon in late 1917 and early 1918, had become a hero—in fact, the hero of the American war effort.

Word began drifting out through the Connecticut newspapers that the pugnacious, hard-drinking Irish immigrant resented that he and the nine other survivors of the patrol were not getting their due. Already back home when his comrades were being deposed by Army investigators about the firefight, Early used his surrogates in New Haven to seek more attention and cut York to size.

“They remember that York was feted on Broadway as the ‘greatest hero,’ while Early laid helpless with four bullet wounds,” the Hartford Courant wrote.

With the help of his previous battalion commander, G. Edward Buxton, Early in October 1929 was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Merrithew, who like Early had considered York a coward for his early reluctance to kill another man, meanwhile laid low for 10 years before he, too, publicly revealed himself as William Cutting and kvetched about the lack of recognition for the other survivors — and assigned himself an outsized role in the capture of the German force.

“After the surrender, I ordered the prisoners to line up in a column of twos and march back to the American lines,” he told The Boston Globe in the fall of 1929. “I gave all the orders myself, because I was in command.”

Merrithew would spend the next three-and-a-half decades telling anyone who would listen that he — and Early — were the real heroes. Finally, Merrithew got his due, receiving a Silver Star on Oct. 21, 1965—one year after York’s death.

Finally mollified, Otis changed his tune at the ceremony, saying of York:

“There was a fellow in our outfit who was a conscientious objector, but once he was in the thick of battle he knew why he was there. His name was Sergeant York.  He was a hero.”

James Carl Nelson is the author of The York Patrol, which will be released on February 23, 2021. Nelson has penned five books about the American experience in World War 1: The Remains of Company D, Five Lieutenants, I Will Hold and The Polar Bear Expedition.

Help spread the word. Share this article with your friends.Like this:Like Loading...