Alvin's father died in 1911, leaving Alvin the oldest son at home to help his mother raise a large family. The young man became a hard-drinking, gambling roughneck, until he met Gracie Williams in about 1915. Due mostly to Gracie's influence, he became a member (and soon an elder) of the strict pacifist Church of Christ in Christian Union. Just as Alvin was beginning to feel he had a grip on life, his draft notice arrived. On November 15, 1917, he reported for military duty at Camp Gordon, Georgia.
His last days as a civilian were a difficult ones for Alvin. The frank mountain man faced a dilemma: his religion told him not to go to war, and his patriotism told him he should. After two days and a night spent in prayer on a mountainside, York resolved to go.
York arrived in the front lines in France on June 27, 1918, but his appointment with destiny came on October 8, 1918, in the Argonne forest. York, by then a Corporal, was ordered to take his squad on a surprise attack against an emplacement of German machine guns. They surprised a group of 15 - 20 Germans, including a Major, and took them prisoners without a shot. But the Major called out in German, and suddenly York's squad was under fire from a ridge less than 30 yards away. With all but two of his squad killed, York "exchanged shots" with the machine gunners. York wrote in his diary: "There were over 30 of them in continuous action and all I could do was touch the Germans off as fast as I could. I was sharpshooting. I don't think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss." Suddenly, a German Lieutenant and five soldiers jumped from a trench and charged him with fixed bayonets, York took cool aim and shot the last man first, then the man next farthest away, and so on, until all six had fallen.
Finally, the German Major offered to surrender his entire command, if York would "just stop shooting." Upon return to Allied lines, it was determined that York had taken 132 prisoners. The next morning, 28 dead Germans were found at the scene of the fight: the same number of shots York said that he fired. 35 German machine guns and assorted small arms and ammunition were also captured. Returning to the scene of his "triumph," York prayed for those who had died, German and American alike. For his exploits, York was awarded The Medal of Honor, as well as the the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Croce de Guera, and the American Distinguished Service Cross. He was also promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
After the War, Sgt. York returned to his Tennessee mountains and his beloved Gracie. They married on June 7, 1919, a week and a day after Alvin's return. He determined that it was his mission in life to bring education to his native valley, and set about to raise the money to build a high school (now the Alvin C. York Technical Institute) and a Bible school. Alvin and Gracie raised 7 children. For 35 years, he hunted, he farmed, he did some blacksmithing, and he preached. In 1954, Alvin York suffered a devastating cerebral hemorrhage, and was an invalid for the last ten years of his life.
Sgt. Alvin C. York died at the Veterans Hospital in Nashville on September 2, 1964, at the age of 76. He is buried in the family plot in the Wolf River Cemetary in Pall Mall, Tennessee.