Armistice Day

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100 years ago, the Allies of World War I signed the agreement to accept the Surrender of the Germans and the cessation of hostilities everywhere. On the anniversary of this historic ending of a World War, we remember the acts of heroism by the men and women of that time. Sgt. York was one of the men who fought in that war so bravely.

Filming a Hero

Gary Cooper plays Sgt. York in the movie of the same name. The story of Sgt. York captured the imagination of the country. 

A 1941 film about his World War I exploits, Sergeant York, was that year’s highest-grossing film; Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of York, and the film was credited with enhancing American morale as the US mobilized for action in World War II.

Wikipedia, 2018

As I was watching this film yesterday I noticed how Sgt. York’s story and his origins from Tennessee melted together to make this important American hero as his reluctance to fight was overcome by the need to fight and kill: 

Sargent York said, “And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”

Wikipedia, 2018

Tragic Heroes are More Like Us

In Sgt. York we see the best of us. We see a man who did not want to fight, who was a conscientious objector, and who converted to a fighter when he saw the destruction raining down from a hill of 30 machine guns ripping his own fellow soldiers down like grass before mowing machine. Lest we think Sgt. York is a hero without flaws, it is important to remember that he was both a religious man and a drinker and a fighter in his early days Tennessee. But he did not want to kill anyone, so when his conscientious objector status was denied he was drafted and joined the war in France in 1918. At the critical moment when the machine guns had cut down all of the ranking officers and enlisted personnel above him, Sgt. York was told that he was the ranking soldier left in the unit. He took command, killed many Germans himself, captured 132 of them with his seven other comrades and marched all of them back to brigade headquarters.

Humble Hero

He was immediately decorated with the distinguished service Cross and upon investigation of his actions that recognition was upgraded to the medal of honor but hardly anyone in the United States had heard of him.

York’s heroism went unnoticed in the United States press, even in Tennessee, until the publication of the April 26, 1919 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which had a circulation in excess of 2 million. In an article titled “The Second Elder Gives Battle”, journalist George Patullo, who had learned of York’s story while touring battlefields earlier in the year, laid out the themes that have dominated York’s story ever since: the mountaineer, his religious faith and skill with firearms, patriotic, plainspoken and unsophisticated, an uneducated man who “seems to do everything correctly by intuition.”

Wikipedia, 2018

He arrived back in New York City and was given a ticker-tape parade. He was then discharged and returned home where his girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife and he were given a tract of land by generous patrons in Tennessee. He remained humble discarding offers to cash in on his fame and later founded a charitable organization to benefit young people’s opportunities in rural Tennessee.

Strengths and Challenges

What makes Sgt. York the perfect hero is a combination of strengths and challenges. This reminds me of all of our children in our schools who come to us with strengths that we will celebrate and challenges that we will work on to help them improve. And to be sure there are many other stories from World War I and all the other wars that we have fought where common ordinary citizens become heroic in the face of hostility.

But the lesson here is that we are all a mix of strengths and challenges and it is the hope of educators everywhere that we will be able to help students know the differences, work to improve, and be able to contribute when asked. And on this day we can remember Sgt. York as a model for what is best in America despite the challenges we face both as individuals and as a country. We are not fragile, we are resilient, and we have the willpower to make this a better place to live for all of us.