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Sergeant Alvin York

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Sergeant York has been called "the greatest soldier in history" for his exploits during World War I. But Alvin York never set out to become a soldier, and he never wanted to fight a war or kill anyone. In fact, what he considered his greatest accomplishments came after all the glory of his war exploits. Others tend to disagree. He was a true hero.

Alvin Cullum York was born in 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the third child and oldest son of eleven children. He grew up using a rifle to hunt food, and became a sharpshooter who won local marksman competitions. His skills became even more necessary when his father died and York had to help raise his younger siblings. York attended school for only a few months in his life.

York was a hard-drinking hell-raiser until he joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. His conversion is attributed to the death of his friend Everett Delk in a bar fight, which caused York to reassess his life. The church rejected drinking, gambling, dancing, movies, and violence of all kinds. This pacifist stance caused a moral dilemma for York when he was drafted into the army in 1917. He applied for conscientious objector status, but was turned down at both the local and state level because his church was not recognized as a legitimate Christian sect. He spent two days praying in solitude before reporting for duty. His superiors in the military were baffled by York, who could shoot better than anyone but did not want to go to war. York's company commander and battalion commander held discussions with York and convinced him that in certain circumstances, warfare can serve the greater good. Once York's mind was made up, he became a dedicated soldier. He later wrote that the the application for conscientious objection was not his doing and that he refused to sign the papers.

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The events that led to York being designated the "greatest soldier in history" came on October 8, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Seventeen men under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early were ordered behind the German lines, including then-Corporal York. Some accounts say that the unit ended up behind the lines because they misread the French map. After a surprise attack, a group of Germans surrendered. German machine gunners then saw how small the American detachment was and opened fire, killing Sergeant Early and half the unit, and wounding three more. This left York in command. Corporal York picked off the German gunners one by one. From York's diary:

I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.

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Between each shot, York yelled for the Germans to surrender if they wanted the shooting to stop. The remaining Germans (who assumed there were many more Americans than there actually were) complied. Newspaper accounts say York "single-handedly" captured the prisoners, but York himself credits his compatriots by saying the unit surrounded the enemy. York shot between 20 and 28 Germans (accounts vary; most say around 25). The remaining 90 or so surrendered. As the Americans made their way back to the Allied lines, they picked up more German prisoners along the way for a total of 132 captured.

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York was promoted to Sergeant and continued to fight in France until the armistice was signed on November 11th. York was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, the Badge of Nobility, and the French Croix de Guerre, among other awards.

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Back in Tennessee, York married his sweetheart Gracie Williams eight days after his arrival home. They eventually had ten children, three of whom died in infancy.

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In 1922, the Rotary Club of Nashville paid for a home to be built for the family in Fentress County. Image by Flickr user Jake Keup.

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York regretted not having the opportunity to become educated as a child. in 1926, he founded the York Institute, a school in Jamestown, Tennessee. He raised funds to start the school as a private high school and in 1937 persuaded the state to provide public support. He considered the school his greatest achievement.

When I went out into that big outside world I realized how un-educated I was and what a terrible handicap it was. I was called to lead my people toward a sensible modern education. For years I have been planning and fighting to build the school. And it has been a terrible fight. A much more terrible fight than the one that I fought in the war. And so I head into the frontline and fight another fight. And I can't use the old rifle or Colt automatic this time. And it has been a long hard fight.

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The original school building was scheduled to be demolished last year, but is now undergoing restoration as a historical site. York also supported an elementary school which now bears his name. He turned down many moneymaking opportunities because he didn't believe in cashing in on his military service, but he was open to raising funds for schools, churches, and charities. Image by Flickr users Brent and MariLynn.

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In 1941, York consented to the project of turning his diary into a movie on the condition that Gary Cooper portray him. The film Sergeant York was a smash hit and earned an Oscar for Cooper and a nomination for Best Film. The movie is a straightforward account from York's diary, with only one fictional embellishment -York did not convert after he was struck by lightning. He used the proceeds of the film to found the York Bible Institute.

Sergeant York attempted to reenlist during World War II but was denied due to his age. He served his country again anyway, touring the nation to encourage the sale of war bonds. He helped to create the Tennessee State Guard in 1941. York also operated a store and gristmill in his hometown. Alvin C. York died on September 2, 1964 at the Veteran's Hospital in Nashville. He was 76.

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York's home, grave site, and businesses are now part of the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park where his son Andrew York conducts tours and tells stories of his father. Image by Brian Stansberry.

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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History
Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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