Now it can be told: The true story 'Sergeant York' didn't tell Published: May 25, 2008
KAREN EARLY SCOTT remembers as a youngster hearing her family talk about a controversial World War I battle and how she finally asked BernardEarly, who had been there, "Grandpa, what happened?" She recalls Early simply said, "It didn't happen that way."
"That way" was the Hollywood version of the event as depicted in the 1941 movie "Sergeant York." Gary Cooper, who played the role of the most famous man at that battle, Sgt. Alvin York, won an Oscar for his portrayal.
Unfortunately for Early and the other 15 overlooked soldiers who were on that battlefield in northeastern France on Oct. 8, 1918, the movie echoed the official U.S. military view.
It made for a good story: York, a young man from Tennessee who had been a conscientious objector, single-handedly kills 25 German soldiers with his expert shooting skills and captures 132.
The tale may sound preposterous, but the American public bought it. The York saga was bolstered by affidavits supposedly written by several of the other American soldiers (not Early).
But now, 90 years later, Scott of North Haven, Early's great nephew Robert D'Angelo Jr. of Woodbridge and about a dozen additional descendants of "the other 16" are working together to at last win recognition for those forgotten men.
What galvanized them is a plan by York fans to stage a 90thanniversary commemoration of the battle in October near the site of the event. Relatives of "the other 16" cannot abide the idea of their forebears again being ignored. When they heard a plaque will be placed there that trumpets York but does not name his comrades they got fighting mad.
"This is not York-bashing," D'Angelo said. "But activity is now going on in France which is York-centric. It's excluding the other guys."
He added, "We want to make sure that when this story is told, it is told correctly."
That's long overdue, at least outside the hometowns of "the other 16." D'Angelo noted Early was a hero in the New Haven area, as he lived for many years in Hamden, owned a bar on State Street in New Haven and had many supporters who helped him get some recognition.
In 1929, Early finally received the Distinguished Service Cross in Washington.
According to D'Angelo, a studious researcher of history, President Herbert Hoover remarked, "I think the letters (DSC) stand for 'damn slow coming.'"
D'Angelo noted Early, a modest man, used the occasion to say the other 15 guys also deserved awards.
But Early's present-day supporters believe he merits a Medal of Honor, which York received. D'Angelo asked U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd to have the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress examine the contributions of "the other 16." Dodd is awaiting the result.
D'Angelo believes the researchers will find, as he did, that those 16 were overlooked because of unlucky circumstances.
Sgt. Early was the commanding officer who led his unit on a dangerous mission to get behind a group of German soldiers after being ordered to do so by a superior officer.
"Bernie did it," D'Angelo said. "He led this small group and they surprised the Germans, who were having breakfast.
But then other Germans opened fire with machine guns.
Six of the Americans were killed and Bernie was seriously wounded."
At this point, the events become unclear. According to D'Angelo, York said he shot to death many Germans, stopped a bayonet charge and "rescued a situation gone bad."
But D'Angelo noted, "The other guys said they were all shooting." He said ammunition found in the area supports this.
When a Saturday Evening Post writer heard about the battle, he seized on the York-aslone-hero angle. In addition, D'Angelo said, "The Army was looking for a hero to serve its purposes."
With Early in the hospital, four of the other 15 soldiers were directed to sign affidavits glorifying York. Some of those four could barely read, but they signed what was put in front of them.
For more than a year, D'Angelo has been tracking down other relatives of "the other 16" and bringing them together. They are joined by former Hamden Mayor John Carusone, who wants an Early plaque erected in Hamden.
York and "the other 16" are dead. Early died April 11, 1961, at age 68. But his descendants won't stop fighting on his behalf, as well as for the others.
"They suffered with this all their lives," Scott said.
Randall Beach can be reached at email@example.com or 789-5766.
Caption:Melanie Stengel/Register Robert D'Angelo Jr. and Karen Early Scott are trying to win recognition for WWI Sgt. BernardEarly, shown in portrait, and his men.