published Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Exhibit tells story of World War I hero Alvin York

  • photo
    This is a 1919 photo of Sgt. Alvin York of the U.S. Army in an unknown location.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ONLINE

Tennessee State Museum's Military Branch: http://www.tnmuseum.org/Exhibits/Military_Branch_Museum/

NASHVILLE — Despite being one of the most famous war heroes in Tennessee history, much of Alvin York's life has remained hidden for almost a century, but a newly opened exhibit could change that.

"In the Footsteps of Alvin York" opened this weekend at the Tennessee State Museum's Military Branch, with displays designed by filmmaker and designer David Currey with the help of a group of historians in the state. The exhibit tells the life story of the man from Pall Mall, Tenn., in Fentress County, who became one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I.

The exhibit will remain in Nashville for six months before traveling first to Memphis and then to other museums throughout the world.

"I think it's important for our family, obviously, but I think it's important for the people of Tennessee and the people of this country," said Col. Gerald York, a grandson of Alvin York, after seeing the exhibit for the first time Saturday. "I think it's important for us to remember our heroes and keep that in the forefront so we don't forget."

Several family members, including two of York's children, George Edward York and Betsy Ross York Lowery, attended a speakers forum discussing York's life and legacy that was held at Fort Negley Park on Saturday before getting their first look at the exhibit.

"We're just ecstatic," said Deborah York, Alvin's great-granddaughter and executive director of the Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation. "I think that the whole family is honored to have so many people working on behalf of Sgt. York's legacy and putting so much effort into preserving his history."

On Oct. 8, 1918, Cpl. (later Sgt.) York led seven soldiers against a much larger German force in the Argonne Forest near the small town of Chatel Chehery, France. York led an attack that killed several enemy machine gunners and resulted in the surrender of 132 German soldiers to the small American unit.

York was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to sergeant, becoming one of the most famous U.S. heroes of World War I. His story was told in the 1941 film "Sergeant York," staring Gary Cooper.

Beginning in 2005, researchers led by Michael Birdwell from Tennessee Tech and Tom Nolan of Middle Tennessee State made several trips to France to find the site of York's historic actions.

Using state-of-the-art satellite mapping technology and historical accounts of the battle, the team recovered artifacts to conclusively document where and how the events of October 1918 unfolded. Many of these artifacts from northern France are displayed in the new exhibit.

Birdwell said he hopes his work with the York family over the past 25 years will help separate fact from fiction about York's life and shed new light on a man who was far more complex that he has been portrayed in popular culture.

"For decades, Alvin York was lost to the mythology of his life," Birdwell said. "This exhibit hopefully will help reclaim the man from the mythology."

about Jim Tanner...

Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...

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