Tennessee had its fair share of heroes during that war, but six of them went above and beyond the call of duty and earned the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
The best known of the six was a man opposed to fighting in the first place.
Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated soldiers in the United States Army, started the war as a conscientious objector.
Although he was a bit of a hell-raiser in his younger days, York found religion in 1914 and joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union in 1915. When World War I started, York would later say, “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”
Being a conscientious objector didn’t keep you out of the war, and York eventually reported to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia.
It was there he met Capt. Edward Danforth, who was his company commander, and Maj. Edward Buxton, his battalion commander and a devout Christian. The three men had long conversations about God and what the Bible has to say about war and violence.
Buxton granted York a 10-day leave to go home and think things through. After spending time in the hills around his home in Pall Mall, York returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and would keep him safe.
In October 1918, York was one of a group of 17 soldiers assigned to infiltrate German lines and silence a machine gun position. After the American patrol had captured a large group of enemy soldiers, German small arms fire killed six Americans and wounded three. York was the highest ranking of those still able to fight, so he took charge.
“Those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush,” York said. “As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over 30 of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharpshooting. ... All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
While his men guarded the prisoners, York attacked the machine gun position, killing several German soldiers with his rifle before running out of ammunition. Six Germans charged him with bayonets and York drew his pistol, killing all of them. The German officer responsible for the machine gun position had emptied his pistol while firing at York but failed to hit him. The officer then offered to surrender and York accepted. York and his men marched back to their unit’s command post with more than 130 prisoners.
In attempting to explain his actions after the war, York said, “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”
Notice I said York was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. But he was not the most decorated soldier in the Army. In fact, he wasn’t even the most decorated soldier from Tennessee.
Knoxville’s James Ernest “Buck” Karnes and Morristown’s Calvin John Ward, both with the 117th Infantry, Tennessee National Guard, were pinned down by machine gun fire along with the rest of their company. The two men decided that enough was enough and fixed bayonets and charged the German lines.
That’s right, a two-man charge toward a dug-in enemy.
According to their MOH citation, they “advanced against this position and succeeded in reducing the nest by killing three and capturing seven of the enemy and their guns.”
Karnes and Ward broke the German line by themselves and the rest of their company followed through the gap. The two men would each come home with one more medal than York.
Then there’s the story of the guy who kicked an enemy machine gun.
That is what Joseph B. Adkinson, from Egypt, Tennessee, did when, according to his citation, “murderous machine gun fire at a range of 50 yards had made it impossible for his platoon to advance, and had caused the platoon to take cover. Sgt. Adkinson alone, with the greatest intrepidity, rushed across the 50 yards of open ground directly into the face of the hostile machine gun and kicked the gun from the parapet into the enemy trench, and at the point of the bayonet captured the 3 men manning the gun. The gallantry and quick decision of this soldier enabled the platoon to resume its advance.”
Adkinson took out one machine gun position. Edward R. Talley from Russellville took out two.
The Hamblen County native, undeterred by seeing several comrades killed while attempting to put a hostile machine gun nest out of action, attacked the position single-handedly. Armed only with a rifle, Talley rushed the nest in the face of intense enemy fire, killed or wounded at least six of the crew and silenced the gun. When the enemy attempted to bring forward another gun and ammunition, he drove them back by effective fire from his rifle.
Both Adkinson and Talley’s one-man charges were impressive. But when it comes to the number of machine guns knocked out, Milo Lemert from Crossville has them both beat. He took out four machine gun nests.
His MOH citation states, “Seeing that the left flank of his company was held up, Lemert located the enemy machine gun emplacement which had been causing heavy casualties. In the face of heavy fire he rushed it single-handed, killing the entire crew with grenades. Continuing along the enemy trench in advance of the company, he reached another emplacement, which he also charged, silencing the gun with grenades. A third machine gun emplacement opened up on him from the left and with similar skill and bravery he destroyed this also. Later, in company with another sergeant, he attacked a fourth machine gun nest, being killed as he reached the parapet of the emplacement. His courageous action in destroying in turn 4 enemy machine gun nests prevented many casualties among his company and very materially aided in achieving the objective.”
Lemert was the only one of the six men in this story who didn’t make it home alive. His funeral service was conducted at First Christian Church in Crossville before his burial in Crossville City Cemetery.
In a letter home to his mother only a couple of months before his death, Lemert wrote, “I am a pretty good soldier and am proud of it. ... As for me I can shut my eyes and dream such sweet dreams of Tennessee that I am sure I will have to be chained in heaven if I do get bumped off in No Man’s Land.”
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]