In January and February of 1919, affidavits in support of the award of the Distinguished Service Cross and later, the Medal of Honor to be awarded to Alvin York were collected.The collection of statements from officers associated with this feat, from York himself, and the survivors of the battle represent the earliest record of the events.While physically, these affidavits have been elusive, that is, they have not been known to have been located or presented by contemporary researchers, the text of these affidavits were reprinted in 1929 by Tom Skeyhill in his book, “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary”.Skeyhill indicated that many of these documents were published for the first time in his book.
There are several points with regard to these affidavits that will be addressed and the veracity of these documents will be examined. What they include, and equally, what is omitted is of significant interest.Additional points of contention within these affidavits, why they are subject to this scrutiny, is not limited to their content, but also the timing and manner in which they were collected.Also subject to question are the words themselves, used to describe and explain the October 8, 1918 battle.
The first known effort to record the events of October 8th was that of Major G. Edward Buxton, Jr., the Division Historical Officer.Major Buxton oversaw the collection of affidavits from Privates Percy Beardsley, George Wills, Michael Saccina and Patrick Donohue on January 26, 1919.Also present during the interview was Sergeant Major Saferman. The presence of Saferman is known as it is mentioned in a letter to Otis Merrithew from G.E. Buxton written on February 21, 1930 (see letter).The quality of the affidavits collected by G.E. Buxton are good, in that they appear to be individualized and written in first-person, that is, they are written as if they had been directly dictated to Buxton or Saferman.With each statement, Buxton indicated that each was read back to the soldier and he certified that it had been signed under oath before him. However, it is also clear that the focus of these affidavits is Alvin York. Examining now the content of these documents, the following information was reported by these four soldiers concerning the actions of Corporal York during the October 8th battle.
In his affidavit, Percy Beardsley stated, “I was first near Corporal York, but soon after thought it would be better to take cover behind a large tree about 15 paces in rear of Corporal York.”He later added, “I saw Corporal York fire his pistol repeatedly in front of me.”, His final remarks concerning York’s actions which he had witnessed was,“Finally the fire stopped and Corporal York told us to have the prisoners fall in columns of two and for me to take my place in the rear.”
The next affiant, Michael Saccina, only spoke of York’s actions at the conclusion of the battle.He stated, “I then saw Corporal York, who called out to us, and when we joined him, I saw seven Americans besides myself.”Saccina went on to list the remaining soldiers by name.
Private George Wills stated, “I heard Corporal York several times shouting to the machine gunners on the hill to come down and surrender, but from where I stood, I could not see Corporal York. I saw him, however, when the firing stopped and he told us to get along the side of the column.”In his affidavit to G.E. Buxton, Patrick Donohue made no mention of the actions of York.Based on these four affidavits alone, one can only infer that York fired his pistol, and at some point led the survivors in assembling the prisoners into columns.
The next set of affidavits was taken by 1st Lieutenant Edwin A. Buckhalter in Frettes, France on February 6th and 26th, 1919.The first affidavit is alleged to be that of Joseph Konotski which was then signed by Theodore Sok; it was also signed by Patrick Donohue and Michael Saccina despite having been deposed and swearing to their own statements only a few weeks earlier.The second affidavit taken by Bukhalter was that of Percy Beardsley.Again, Beardsley had sworn to a statement taken by G.E. Buxton one month earlier.Why a second affidavit was necessary seems to be due to the need to further advance the York "legend. This second affidavit of Beardsley was also signed by George Wills.A third affidavit, that of Captain Bertrand Cox, was also collected by Buckhalter on February 26, 1919.Captain Cox provided a survey of the battlefield where “York and his detachment of seven men succeeded in capturing the greater part of a German Battalion”.He did not witness any of the fighting.
To fully understand the controversy associated with the affidavits written by Buckhalter (the “February Set”) they should first read in their entirety. A link to these two affidavits is here (Konotski)(Beardsley).After reviewing the “February” affidavits, it is clear that they were written to bolster the story that began to grow out of the battlefield west of Chatel Chehery.Here, the focus of the affidavits shifts from the events of the battle to York’s “action and deeds of most distinguished personal bravery and self-sacrifice”.The first irregularity concerning these affidavits, as mentioned above, is the fact that four of the six signatures collected for these reports had filed individual reports less a month prior.Several new and remarkable revelations appear in Beardsley’s second affidavit, including the bayonet charge and the German officers surrender to York.Second, these affidavits are written in the third person, omniscient; as if the affiants played no part in the event, but somehow knew all of the facts.Third, and with respect for the plight of these brave men, the vernacular used in the affidavits, specifically Konotski’s, could not have been comprehended by these soldiers' many of whom were immigrants; much less constructed or written by these men.Finally, and for the most compelling reason of all, in both 1929 and 1941, amazingly, these men spoke out and denied taking part in these statements. In 1929, around the time of the War College exposition, Konotski did sign an affidavit; this time to refute the one attributed to him in 1919. (here) Then, in 1941, when the movie Sergeant York made its debut, the seven survivors banded together and wrote a letter to the Editor of the Boston Globe in which they adamantly deny having signed these affidavits.In the letter, the men state that at that time, if they had signed anything, it was what they believed to be supply slips. An excerpt from this letter, courtesy of the personal papers of Otis Merrithew, can be viewed here.For this final reason alone, these affidavits should be disregarded; the prior three points serve to support their 1929 and 1941 statements.
Finally, it is important to point out that the statements of two soldiers who played critical roles in this battle, both in deed and leadership, were not obtained in 1919.This is, without a doubt, due to the fact that Sergeant Bernard Early and Corporal William Cutting (Otis Merrithew) were seriously injured, each having sustained several gunshot wounds during this battle. It is at this critical point in history that the “story” begins to take shape and to diverge from fact. Eventually, both Bernard Early and Otis Merrithew reduced their experiences to writing in the form of affidavits; these affidavits will be addressed chronologically, in a future tab. (War College Honor 1929)
(The source of all of the above “quoted” material is the collection of Army affidavits collected in 1919 and 1928 and reprinted in the book, “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary” by Tom Skeyhill)