Book Review: Sergeant York by Alvin C. York and Tom Skeyhill (Three Stars)


Book Review: Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary by Alvin C. York and Tom Skeyhill

(Four Stars)

“I only did my duty to God and my country, and every man should do this.”

The true story of an extraordinary man of conscience who also happened to be an incredible shot with a rifle. York’s struggle with the conflicting dictates of his faith and his patriotism is perhaps a more compelling story that his battlefield exploits, and those—though documented—are so incredible as to seem like pulp fiction.

“Great care has been taken to preserve his mountain dialect.”

Writing this in York’s semi-literate dialect may have played well in the 1920s, but today’s reader will find it obscure and dishonest. This is obviously an “as told to” book with Tom Skeyhill as the ghost writer.

“And that is the greatest victory I ever won. It’s much harder to whip yourself than to whip the other fellow, I’m a-telling you, and I ought to know because I done both. It was much harder for me to win the great victory over myself than to win it over those German machine guns in the Argonne Forest. And I was able to do it because my mother’s love led me to God, and He showed me the light, and I done followed it.”

York was older than most doughboys. More mature. He’d had his time of smokin’, cussin’, drinkin’, swearin’ and lawlessness after his father died. He’d come to the Lord. He tried to avoid serving because he felt killing—even in combat—against God’s dictates. Eventually he was persuaded otherwise.

“I had orders to report to Brigadier General Lindsay, our brigadier commander, and he said to me, ‘Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damned German army.’ And I told him I only had 132.”

Then and now any account of that morning in the Argonne Woods must reflect on the improbability of one man overpowering and capturing most of a battalion of heavily armed veteran enemy. Yes, York was a crack shot and a cool head, but he himself credits divine intervention. York didn’t want to kill or be killed, and paradoxically may have saved lives on both sides by his quick action and leadership.

“I’m a-telling you the hand of God must have been in that fight. It surely must have been divine power that brought me out. No other power under heaven could save a man in a place like that. Men were killed on both sides of me and all around me and I was the biggest and the most exposed of all. Without the help of God I jes couldn’t have done it. There can be no arguments about that. I am not going to believe different as long as I live.”