by Douglas V. Mastriano
Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014. Pp. xii, 224.
Illus., maps, notes, index. $34.95. ISBN: 0813145198
Alvin York (1887-1964) may have fought in the First World War, but he’s hardly a forgotten hero, given the regular airing of the 1941 biopic. So he would hardly seem in need of a new biography. Nevertheless, Col. Mastriano’s effort demonstrates that there’s more to know about this extraordinary ordinary American and his “crowded hour” in the Argonne on October 18, 1918 than is commonly believed.
Mastriano gives us a good look at York’s life before and after the events that made him a national hero. The focus of the book, however, is of course on precisely what happened on Friday, October 18, 1918, in the trenches along a railroad north of Chatel-Chéhéry. This is not only because York earned a Medal of Honor that day, in his words having “captured the whole damned German army,” but also because objections have been raised about the accepted account of those events.
As a result of these criticisms, Mastriano devotes a good deal of effort to analyze accounts of York’s action, to descriptions of the field, and to an archaeological investigation of the site, among them his own. These have identified the precise location of the action and generally confirm York’s account.
In addition, Mastriano takes the story of Alvin York beyond the Great War, and we get a look at his efforts to promote education in his native Tennessee and his time in the army in the Second World War, when toured military camps to speak with recruits, supported war bond drives, and served as an inspiration for many.
A volume in the UPK “American Warriors Series”, Alvin York is not only a very good biography of York, but also gives us an look at how careful analysis and evidence from battlefield archaeology can help the historian better understand how events unfolded.