They are ‘The Other 16’ — American soldiers who fought valiantly in a key battle in World War I, but were shunted aside by the legend of one man’s heroism. Although it happened nearly nine decades ago, their families still want history corrected. Now, time is running out.
RA SPECIAL REPORT BY GEORGE KRIMSKY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN It took a distant battle in a nearly forgotten war to bring former strangers from three states together in Dave Kornacki’s living room. As they sat together on a recent Sunday afternoon, comparing notes and photographs, it was clear this was not a gathering of battle re-enactors or historians, but ordinary people with common purpose. A police detective, cardiac nurse, corporate attorney, real estate broker, full-time mom, financial executive, math teacher turned contractor, retired fire chief and a distributor of baked goods. They are linked by the accident of genealogy —relatives of long-deceased World War I veterans who served together in France in 1918. Although removed from that period by two and three generations, the descendants talked of that war as if it were theirs. In a way, it is. They have chosen to speak for soldiers who no longer can speak for themselves in telling what really happened one morning nearly 90 years ago in a battle in the ArgonneForest that has become one of America’s most enduring wartime legends. Their forebears had all served with Sgt. Alvin C. York. Hailed as the “greatest hero” of the first world war, York was credited with single-handedly killing 25 German soldiers and capturing another 132 in the closing days of the conflict. A simple man from the Tennessee mountains, York was awarded the Medal of Honor, feted in ticker-tape parades, praised by presidents and immortalized by Hollywood. The problem, these descendants contend, is that York did not do all he is credited with doing. Other members of his 17-man unit shared in that day’s victory, they say. They call them “The Other 16.”
YORK: Families want record corrected Continued from Page One Six were killed in the battle, and three were wounded. Eight survivors were decorated for their roles, which alone makes fiction of the single-hero story, but all except York have become little more than a footnote in faded archives. Were it not for the painstaking research of these relatives, the full identities and origins of the other soldiers in the unit would have never come to light. They are published in this newspaper for the first time. While family members and military historians disagree on some facts, the evidence and testimony amassed over the years clearly point to a collaborative effort in that battle, and even York disputed some of the more outlandish feats he was said to have performed. But it’s not easy changing a myth, especially one forged in wartime and so satisfying to the ageless yearning for individual heroes. What made York particularly appealing to the legend- makers was that he had been a conscientious objector, opposed to the war, until aroused to valor by the heat of battle. Questions have been raised almost from the time the conflict ended, but the single-handed York legend kept returning to drown out inconvenient evidence, according to the families. Connecticut Men The Sunday Republican revealed for the first time in 1927 that one of the unsung heroes of the storied battle on Oct. 8, 1918 was a farmer from Roxbury named Percy P. Beardsley. A tavern keeper from New Haven, Bernard C. Early, was the sergeant in charge of the fabled unit and has long been recognized in his hometown for playing a key role in that battle before being seriously wounded. Eleven years after the war, the army conferred on him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest combat decoration. Another, Otis B. Merrithew, an enlistee from Bridgeport who was wounded in the battle, was awarded a Silver Star 47 years after the war, before he died in 1977. It was Merrithew, not York, who accepted the surrender of the Germans, and for years he kept the commanding officer’s Luger pistol as a souvenir, according to his family. His daughter remembered his bitterness. “He was very frustrated, especially after the movie came out, but he never stopped trying to get recognition for all the men,” said Lorraine Merrithew Fallon, 77, of South Yarmouth, Mass. She was referring to the 1941 film, “Sergeant York,” which won Gary Cooper an Academy Award for the starring role. The families have become expert in picking out historical inaccuracies in the film, but they are also resigned to Hollywood distortions. “This is about more than just the movie,” said James Fallon Jr., Lorraine’s son. “The army also bore the blame, along with all that York propaganda out of Tennessee. But the movie kept the legend alive.” Kornacki, a policeman who hosted the recent meeting of families, recalled the oft-told family story of his grandfather, Joseph, getting drunk with other veterans from the unit one night after watching the movie. “They were going to head down to Tennessee, find Sgt. York and take him out. Fortunately my grandmother was sober and talked them out of it.” What brought this group of descendants together last month was a new urgency to their mission — the upcoming 90th anniversary of the 1918 battle in France, which they fear will ignore the role the other 16 played. “Our goal is to ensure that history accurately reflects what happened on that day 90 years ago and to see that all the men are recognized,” explained Robert V. D’Angelo Jr., a Naugatuck executive who is the great nephew of Sgt. Early and the prime mover in bringing the families together from across New England. Their fears are well grounded. The celebrations in France have been organized by a U.S. military officer who is a fervent York devotee and other boosters from Tennessee, with the cooperation of the French government and the 82nd Airborne Division. The plaque they plan to unveil only mentions the other soldiers in passing and none by name, except for York. The others’ families, who were late getting started and met for the first time in March, have begun negotiations with the anniversary organizers, but they don’t hold out a lot of hope. D’Angelo has asked U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., for help. Dodd’s office has in turn asked the Congressional Research Service to substantiate the roles that Connecticut soldiers played in that 1918 battle. They await that report. One of the common threads that emerged from family stories over the years was that York and others in the unit didn’t get along that well. He was a southern country rube with a pious demeanor among mostly city toughs from New York and New England, six of whom were first-generation immigrants. But that’s beside the point, the families say. “This is not an Alvin York bashing group,” insisted Kornacki, whose grandfather was one of the handful to be decorated. “This is an ethical issue about getting deserved recognition for brave people.” Or as D’Angelo put it: “To divide glory does not mean to diminish it.”
Assault looked to be ‘certain death’ One battle, differing accounts BY GEORGE KRIMSKY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN The skirmish that fostered the legend of Sgt. York took place during the final major battle of World War I, called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, in northeastern France in the autumn of 1918. The unit was part of the “All American” 82nd division, which was ordered to confront the Germans in the dense and hilly ArgonneForest. Two weeks into the offensive, the 2nd Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment, was assigned to capture a railroad supply depot outside the small town of Chatel- Chehery. The purpose was to cut the supply line to the Germans who were surrounding a trapped unit of American soldiers that came to be known as the “lost battalion.” The 2nd battalion launched its attack at on a cold and foggy Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1918. While crossing a valley in the direction of the railroad, Company G encountered withering machine gunfire from a hill directly in front of them. The 1st platoon was pinned down after several men were killed. Half of the platoon, 17 men under the command of Sgt. Bernard J. Early of New Haven, was ordered to move around the left side of the ridge to try to take out the machine guns from the rear, an assignment one observer said “looked to be certain death.” York was one of three corporals in that unit. As they approached the machine guns, the Americans surprised a detachment of some two dozen Germans, who surrendered after a brief firefight. “It was apparent they were panic stricken at being attacked from the rear and had no idea of our numbers,” Early later said. As the captured were being disarmed and lined up, a voice in the distance yelled in German for comrades to drop to the ground, and a machine gun opened fire. Six Americans were killed outright, and three others were wounded, including Early and his buddy, Cpl. Otis Merrithew. What happened after that is disputed. York’s citation for the Medal of Honor said he led the seven remaining men against a machine gun nest “which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat, the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.” A legend is born Although the citation does not say so, the legend later grew to claim that York, armed with a rifle and a .45 caliber pistol, fended off a bayonet charge, killed 25 Germans, and wiped out 35 machine gun nests, in addition to accepting the surrender of 132 Germans. The New England soldiers contended after the war that York was given almost all the credit for the victory because, as the only non-commissioned officer still standing, he led the prisoners back to the American lines and was the one questioned on the spot as to what happened. More than half of his patrol had been killed or wounded, and the others were either guarding prisoners or recovering from their ordeal. “None of the others were interviewed at the time,” said Robert V. D’Angelo Jr., Early’s great nephew and the primary leader of the family campaign to gain recognition for the other soldiers. A writer for the Saturday Evening Post was at command headquarters after the battle, and interviewed York when the prisoners were brought in. His published account was the basis for the oneman legend, York’s later citation by the army, a biography published in 1928, and the 1941 movie “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper. “Anyone who has been in combat knows that no one man could have done all that,” argued John L. Carusone, the former mayor of Hamden who developed an interest in the case as a veteran and military history buff. “That pistol business alone is not believable. A .45 has a short range with limited accuracy.” In 2006, a colonel in the U.S. Army claimed to have found the .45 shell casings that pinpointed the site of the battle and confirmed York’s story, but Carusone and the families say the findings prove nothing on a battleground littered with the detritus of two world wars. One of the most painful scenes from the movie for the other veterans of that battle, according to family members, was the following interview of York by the commanding general and his adjutant: General: “What were your men doing all this time, corporal?” York: “Well, I couldn’t just answer that, sir. I was pretty busy at the time.” Adjutant: “According to their statements, they were guarding the prisoners and couldn’t expose themselves to fire on the ridge.” Those “statements,” or affidavits from soldiers to support the awarding of the Medal of Honor to York, have never been found. “I really wonder why that is,” said Angela Sacina, the 74-yearold great niece of Pvt. Michael A. Sacina, one of eight members of the patrol decorated for heroism in that battle.
April 6, 1917:America enters World War I, nearly two years after it begins in Europe. 1919:York awarded Medal of Honor and welcomed home as “greatest hero” of the war. May 29, 1927: The Sunday Republican reports Percy Beardsley of Roxbury challenged York’s account of what happened and publishes the citation he received for his role in the battle. Sept. 2, 1964:York dies in Nashville at the age of 76 after being bedridden for nearly a decade from a stroke. October 2008: Celebrations are to be held in France to mark the battle’s 90th anniversary. Oct. 8, 1918: During crucial Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 82nd “All American” Division, 2nd Battalion, 328th Infantry, launches an assault against a German railroad supply depot outside Chatel-Chehery. It is here that Sgt. Bernard Early’s Company G defeated a German detachment 10 times its size, a feat for which Sgt. Alvin C. York was given most of the credit. Of the 17 members of the patrol, six are killed. 1920: The Connecticut American Legion investigates and says Sgt. Early should “share the honors” with York. 1929: Sgt. Early is presented the Distinguished Service Cross in Washington, 11 years after the war. 1941: Warner Bros. releases the movie “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper, who later wins the Academy Award for his performance. Surviving members of his unit take out a full-page newspaper ad in Boston disagreeing with the version of events portrayed in the film. 2006: After a half-century of relative quiet, researchers from Tennessee who support the York legend claim to find the exact site where the battle took place and shell casings that supposedly support York’s account of holding off a German charge with a .45 caliber pistol.
YORK’S UNIT The 17-man patrol: Pvt. Percy Beardsley, Roxbury Pvt. Patrick J. Donohue,Lawrence, Mass. Pvt. Maryan E. Dymowsky, Trenton, N.J. * Sgt. Bernard J. Early, New Haven ** Pvt. Thomas G. Johnson, Lynchburg, Va. Pvt. Joseph Kornacki, Holyoke, Mass. Cpl. Otis B. Merrithew, (a.k.a. William B. Cutting), Bridgeport ** Pvt. Mario Muzzi, New York ** Pvt. Michael A. Sacina, New York Cpl. Murray L. Savage, East Bloomfield, N.Y. * Pvt. Feodor Sok, Buffalo, N.Y. Pvt. Carl Swansen, Jamestown, N.Y. * Pvt. Fred Wareing, New Bedford, Mass. * Pvt. Ralph E. Wiler, Hanover, Pa.* Pvt. George W. Wills, Philadelphia Pvt. William E. Wine, Philadelphia * Cpl. Alvin York, Pall Mall, Tenn.
* Killed in action ** Wounded
Sources: U.S. Army records, relatives, genealogist and RoxburyTown Historian Timothy F. Beard