Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

AEF Historian E.M. Coffman Meets Sgt. York

One of the most famous American heroes in World War I was Alvin York. In 1941, I saw the movie featuring Gary Cooper. Fourteen years later I met and talked with Sergeant York.

Alvin York During WWII
In September 1955 I went with a friend, Carl Begley, with whom I had spent my first year in the Army, to visit Tom Arnold, who had been with us during that year and was then living in Alcoa, Tennessee. On our trip back to Kentucky, I realized that the Yorks lived on the road so Carl and I decided to visit him. We stopped in Jamestown, which we knew was close to where he lived and asked a postal clerk where his home was. He gave us directions and then told us that York had a stroke the year before and was bedridden. He advised us to ask his son, who ran a country store across the highway from the York home, to find out if his father would see us. We stopped at the store and the son said to ask his mother, who told us that he would.

She took us through the living room to a smaller room where he was sitting up in a bed. He was a large, ruddy-faced man with sandy hair and mustache. He shook hands with us and I told him that I had talked with the widow of the commanding general of the 82nd Division a week or so earlier. He responded in his tenor voice that he remembered "old General Duncan" and his battalion commander, George Buxton. He made us feel at ease and talked about watching TV and the unusual cold weather.

We stayed less than 30 minutes until 11:30, when we heard people gathering in the living room. We shook hands with him and then left. Later in John Perry's Sgt. York: His Life & Legend there is a photo of the family at the dinner table. York lived until September 1964. His home is now a Tennessee Historic Home open to visitors.


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General Duncan wrote an unpublished memoir in which he tells of his visit in February 1919 to the battlefield where York fought a few hundred yards behind the small village of Chatel-Chéhéry on 8 October 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne battle. Duncan asked York to show where he fought and how he was able to do what he did there. York responded, "My father always told me, if you get into a scrimmage keep cool and you are sure to get the drop on the other fellow, and the Lord was with me." Then the general asked him how many Germans he had "hit." York paused briefly and then responded, "General, I would hate to think I missed any of those shots; they were all at pretty close range–50 or 60 yards."

Mac Coffman

Professor Coffman is the author of what is still the best single-volume history of the American Expeditionary Force, The War to End All Wars.

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