JACKSON, Tenn. — The once well-known story of a Tennessee hero is being lifted from the obscuring mists of the past as a new exhibit comes to the Parkers Crossroads Visitor Center, just off Interstate 40, at exit 108.
Soldier Alvin York’s date with destiny came on Oct. 8, 1918, when his Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division of Georgia, was charged with knocking out German machine gun nests in the Argonne Forest, along the Decauville rail line, north of Chatel-Chehery, France.
As the Germans fired on a small unit of American troops, the country boy from rural Fentress County, Tenn., took aim and laid waste to the German machine gunners as his comrades were shot to death around him.
After this, according to the “In the Footsteps of Alvin York” exhibit, York took aim on other enemy troops in a manner developed in his country upbringing.
“Six more Germans led by a lieutenant came scrambling, slipping and sliding down the hill toward him and his comrades in a bayonet charge. With cool confidence he shot each of those — from back to front — as he had shot turkeys back home so that they would not scatter or take cover, using his .45 Colt automatic.”
York’s actions led to the surrender of 132 German soldiers, according to the exhibit. For these actions, the exhibit said, he was promoted from corporal to sergeant, awarded the Medal of Honor and would go on to become one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. His story was told in the 1941 film “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper.
The exhibit opened at the visitor center this month and was designed by Nashville public historian David Currey.
Currey said a public historian is someone who works on exhibits, documentaries and other methods of displaying facts of history to the general public.
With the centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I coming up next year, Currey said, the state of Tennessee and other historical organizations are determined to re-educate people about the first World War and the lives of men like Alvin York.
“A lot of people don’t know about the American experience of World War I,” Currey said. “This exhibit is about educating Tennesseans about the role of Americans in the war and highlighting the life of Alvin York. Many Americans do realize the war marked the birth of the United States as a leading economic and military power. Prior to World War I, the United States had the 17th largest military, and after the war it had the largest.”
With a master’s degree in public history, Currey said he sometimes finds himself in a classroom, but his joy is creating exhibits like the new one at Parkers Crossroads. He said the exhibit was sponsored by the Museum of the American Military Experience.
The exhibit is based on three expeditions to France that took place from 2006 to 2009 and were conducted by an international team of scientists, geographers, historians and archeologists in search of archeological evidence related to York’s actions on Oct. 8, 1918.
“The exact site of where York won the Medal of Honor, however, was disputed for decades,” a panel said. “Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as the basis for combining archival materials, empirical data and artifacts, the team was able to locate the battlefield and reconstruct the sequence of events surrounding York’s heroics. The exhibit follows in the footsteps of Sgt. York.”
Currey said the expedition was successful because of a combination of science and history.
The exhibit includes artifacts from the burial sites of soldiers, spent cartridges from German machine guns and a replica of the guns themselves, as well as a gun like the one York would have used.
Currey said the exhibit aims to shed a truthful light on the life of a real hero.
Kimberly Parker, manager of the visitor center, said she thinks it’s wonderful that local people can see such an advanced exhibit without having to travel a long way from home.
“A lot of older folks might not be able to travel far away from home, and they may have heard stories about Sgt. York,” she said. “Now, they can come here and learn about his life and see something they may not have otherwise had a chance to see.”
She said the visitor center had three exhibits come through the museum this year prior to the exhibit on York.
Parker said Tennessee parks and visitor centers are some of the most traveled in the country. A family from Finland was touring the visitor center while the York exhibit was being set up.
Information from: The Jackson Sun, http://www.jacksonsun.com