The Controversial Truth Behind a Modern Military Legend
Published: 7 February 2023
By James P. Gregory, Jr. Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
On October 8, 1918, seventeen soldiers from the 82nd Division, American Expeditionary Force, led by acting Sgt. Bernard Early, flanked a German machine gun nest that had inundated their unit with withering fire. In this sneak attack, they successfully surprised and captured more than 80 German soldiers before an unseen machine gun suddenly opened fire and killed six men.
Acting Cpl. Alvin York, a member of the patrol, received the credit for taking control of the squad and single-handedly killing 20 Germans, capturing 132 prisoners, and eliminating 35 machine guns, all before leading the men back to Allied lines. For this act of bravery, York not only received the Medal of Honor and was promoted to sergeant, but he also rose to fame and glory. The 1941 movie Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper, solidified York as a legend and one of the most well-known military figures in American history.
Unraveling the Myth of Sgt. Alvin York tells the story of the other sixteen soldiers who took part in the battle, capture, and return before fading into relative obscurity in the shadow of Sergeant York. As the tale reached mythological proportions, the other survivors began to speak out, seeking recognition for their parts in the engagement, only to be stymied by improper investigations, cover-ups, and media misrepresentations. The book recovers the story of these other men and the part they played alongside York while revealing the process of mythmaking in twentieth-century America.
My journey into the myth of Alvin York began on September 22, 2018 when the historian, Steven Girard, sent me a link to a video where a group of descendants discussed their family connection to the York story. They argued for their relative’s participation in the battle that made Sgt. Alvin York famous and I decided that I wanted to understand if there was truly more to the story. A few months later, I met with Robert D’Angelo and Dave Kornacki, descendants of two of the “other sixteen,” Bernard Early and Joseph Kornacki. With their blessing, and access to family archives, this project finally started in earnest.
At first, I believed that the story did occur as other historians had recorded and that there must be a simple answer as to why the other men had been left out of the narrative. However, the more I dug into the family collections, presidential archives, and historiography I realized that their existed a fascinating tale of myth making, coverups, deceit, and redemption. Throughout the writing process, I discovered inconsistencies that had not been caught by other historians: dates did not align, documents had been buried, signatures forged, and people bribed in order to continue the myth of Sgt. Alvin York.
I quickly learned that America’s fascination with heroes came at the cost of remembering the other men who served alongside them. All too often the story of heroes is embellished in order to exaggerate their deeds or the awe of their acts. Once the story reached its zenith, it became nearly impossible to change any detail, no matter how incorrect it may be. Many people do not like their heroes to be attacked or demeaned in any way and I understood that. Instead, I focused on the facts in order to present the case of the other sixteen. Still, I received angry comments, emails, and messages about my work but the need to reveal the story of these forgotten men drove me forward.
Misrepresentation of the truth creates a false story that is detrimental to the historical account. Once a version of a story is cemented in the public opinion, it becomes nearly impossible to change it. In the case of Sgt. Alvin York, facts have been left out or completely ignored, creating a permanent misconception as the story passes to new generations. These heroes of World War I have shaped so much in American popular culture. The good and the bad of World War I is still just as relevant in 2023 as it was over one hundred years ago. The stories and processes that have created our national heroes like Sgt. York can provide an timeless view into the American psyche.
The creation of heroic myths like that of Sgt. Alvin York have harmed the reputations and the memories of the other men involved in the engagement. Shared glory does not diminish the glory and we owe it to all servicemen both past and present to remember their sacrifices. They all participated in the glory that has centered upon a single man and their stories continue far beyond the end of World War I. Unraveling the Myth of Sgt. Alvin York: The Other Sixteen is a story of resilience, perseverance, and remembrance.
James Gregory is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oklahoma and plans to defend in May of this year. He is a prolific author publishing multiple articles and books on World War I history, even being awarded the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s “Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. Award” in 2022. His other books include The Story of One Marine, A Poet at War, C’est La Guerre, and Memories of Company C. Unraveling the Myth of Sgt. Alvin York: The Other Sixteen is available on Amazon, Texas A&M University Press, and all other platforms.