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Sergeant Alvin York

September 15, 2009
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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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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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Warner Bros., IStock
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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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