His Own Life Story and War Diary
Thomas/Tom Skeyhill was a writer that became interested in the story of Alvin Collum York, WWI’s most decorated soldier. Tom followed his curiosity to the hills of Tennessee, where he befriended the veteran and was the final in a string of persons and events that finally convinced York to publish his diary and follow through on his own earlier attempts at transcribing his memory of the events leading up to and including his taking 132 German prisoners almost single-handedly. York was famously introverted and refused numerous offers to publicize his story, himself insisting that “to take money like that would be commercializing my uniform and my soldiering.” (300) Besides, his simple upbringing and lack of “larnin” belied a keen instinct, for his refusal rested upon his observation that “they jes wanted me to show how I done killed the Germans in the Argonne.” (300) That Skeyhill was able to finally convince York to share his story in as near to his own words as possible reveals a bond of trust uncommon between popular culture and its combat veterans. Skeyhill seems well aware of this, and treats his subject matter with care and precision.
The first three chapters are in Skeyhhill’s voice, giving the context to his visitation(s) with York before the biographer switches (with permission) to writing in York’s own firsthand voice. Diffusing the otherwise questionable literary editorial choice of not-quite-ghostwriting is Skeyhill’s careful use of “mountaineer” dialect; deferring to York’s own linguistic nuance and at times confusing grammar unique to the frontier folk language of his time and place. In fact, Skeyhill’s interest from the get-go is to give York voice its fullest possible expression, weaving in his transcription of York’s personal war diary (which was against military regulation, given their proclivity for revealing operational intelligence were diarists to be captured). Several pages are dedicated to reproducing images of the text itself, as well as helpful pictures of York’s home and situation in the rural mountains in the Cumberland Mountains.
I have become something of a connoisseur of veterans narratives lately, especially those that have coverage in film as well. The 1941 movie Sergeant York starred Gary Cooper in the title role, earned him his first Oscar for Best Actor. The popularity of the movie can be attributed to the timing of its release just two days before the July 4th holiday and just over five months prior to Pearl Harbor. However, the film (as opposed to the book) took many liberties and betrayed much of York initial convictions surrounding the use of his life story. Though the 1941 film probably has sept more into the minds of Americans, the book acts as a helpful antidote to the overt (inaccurate) nationalizing fervor of the Warner Brothers work (which was pulled from theaters within months for violating the Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s, which forbade propaganda). Though the book predated the movie by over a decade, it is well served as a counter-narrative to that which was promoted by the cinematic embellishment that followed it.
Though York was known for his heroic acts in battle, they must not be separated from the pacifist convictions that initially formed his imagination about war. Indeed, “hit is a most awful thing when the wishes of your God and your country get sorter mixed up and go against each other.” (154) When he received his draft notice at 29 years old, he had put the life of a fighter behind him. In response to the question whether he claimed exemption to military service based on religious scruples, he wrote to the draft board, which his own pastor served as director, “Yes, don’t want to fight.” (His draft card is viewable online via the National Archives, but also see p.157). His church and everyone in it was opposed to war based on the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” The regional board, despite his pastor’s support and explicit claim that his entire local church was opposed to all war, refused to recognize his objection. So York appealed three times, and they stood firm the same number. If finally took 48 hours of prayer on a mountain near his home to convince him that God would protect York and that he could go to war even if it was against his and God’s will. His peace to do what he was ordered came by way of his realization that “no matter what a man is forced to do, so long as he is right in his own soul he remains a righteous man.” (176, emphasis added) So off he went to war, troubled and troubling all the way. Like Job before him, York’s intense faith would inspire God to “believe in and watch over” him. (201)
The book spends a full half of its length before it finally gets to this point. In fact, York insisted that any depiction of his life not be overshadowed by the specter or war. When he signed the contract with Warner Brothers for the movie, he stipulated that no war scenes whatsoever be showed. He even required that he have final say over the leading lady, for he would not have his wife depicted by any of the infamous glamour girls of hollywood. Gary Cooper, who would play him on screen, was initially reluctant to portray the war hero because of the explicit pacifism inherent to York’s story (as well as not being himself a veteran), for Cooper was among the minority in America in being in support of American intervention in Europe during WWII. In order to land the popular and talented actor, producers forged York’s signature to a document insisting Cooper play the lead. Whereas the movie does cover some of York’s life according to Skeyhill’s account, slightly over half the movie is of Cooper in uniform, either in garrison in Camp Gordon, GA or on the battlefield in France. To be fair, the same proportion exists in the book, but no such agreement was made between York and Skeyhill, and York had much more control over the literary final product than he did the cinematic one.
The climactic scene of both the book and the movie is the one that takes place in the Argonne Forest in France, where York describes having been instructed to take out a machine gun nest to assist in his unit’s advance toward Berlin in October, 1918. That the Armistice would occur just a month later did not deter intense fighting nohow, and York remembers the event vividly for Skeyhill. Having come across an enemy command post, his unit suffers a 50% attrition when the machine guns turn inward and take the lives of six of his men, including all the ranking noncommissioned officers. Taking command, he instructs the privates (the lowest in rank) to secure the few prisoners they had while he went off to silence the automatic weapons fire. His familiarity with rifles as a young man hunting for food in the mountains left him with a finely tuned marksmanship that enabled him to conserve ammunition and move between firearms rapidly, using a pistol when his carbine ran out of ammunition.
York refuses to lean on ideologies and streotype soldiers, even as a conscientious objector opposed to war. His experience in WWI left him with the impression that “war brings out the worst in you. It turns you into a mad, fightin’ animal, but it also brings out something else, something I jes don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fightin’ with you.” (212) Even of his enemies, he speaks so highly that he avoids the affects of dehumanization that can lead to post-traumatic stress or moral injury. About one German soldier who refuses to surrender and continues to fire at York and even the Germans under his care, York writes “I had to tech him off… he was probably a brave soldier boy. But I couldn’t afford to take any chance.” (234)
But he is also unwilling to call war good, for “God would never be so cruel as to create a cyclone as terrible as that Argonne battle. Only man could ever think of doing an awful thing like that.” (215)
Whereas the movie depicts York rather derogatorily gobbling at the Germans like turkeys in order to get them to poke their heads out, the actual story is not nearly as dehumanizing. While York does indeed rely on strategy similar to that which he used hunting wild game, it is never to make animal noises at his targets – that surely would have given away his position and compromised his safety. Instead, it was the practice of firing on the trailing animal so that those ahead do not know they are being attrited. “That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home.” (228) He does the same to the German soldiers, though only to those who are so busy firing on him or his buddies that he cannot call out to them to surrender; the urgent need is to stop them firing, and their heads were the only parts of them he could see. He “done hollered to them to come down and give up. [He] didn’t want to kill any more’n [he] had to.” (228)
For the rest of his life he was left to think about what he done, both good and bad. He tried to forget it for awhile, never telling anyone, even his own mother. Lamentingly, he remarks “If they had done surrendered as I wanted them to when I hollered to them first, and kept on hollering to them, I would have given them the protection that I give them later when I tuk them back.” (236) The words “surrender” or “give up” never leave the lips of Gary Cooper during the same scene in the movie.