Texas State Doctoral Student Tom Nolan Leads Discovery Team (03/20/2006)
by Lisa L. Rollins, (615) 494-8857
MURFREESBORO—The remaining shroud of mystery surrounding Sgt. Alvin C. York, a Tennessee native credited with capturing an entire company of German soldiers during World War I, was lifted on March 8, 2006, thanks to the expertise and efforts of a crack research team led by Thomas Nolan, a doctoral learner in Texas State University’s geography program.
Nolan, who serves as director of the R. O. Fullerton Laboratory for Spatial Technology at Middle Tennessee State University, led the interdisciplinary team whose members have located the battlefield site near Châtel-Chéhéry, France, where a then-30-year-old unwittingly became one of the most highly decorated American soldiers of WWI.
The locale discovered by Nolan and his team—complete with unearthed cartridge casings—is believed to be the site where the late WWI hero carried out what has been called “an astonishing feat of marksmanship” some 87 years ago that culminated in the death of 25 enemy troops and the surrender of another 132.
“We have used geographic information systems (GIS), GPS (global positioning systems), and historic maps and primary documents to uncover the actual location of York’s engagement,” said Nolan, who said his findings will be the focus of his dissertation at Texas State.
Although York—whose backwoods raccoon-hunting skills played a vital role in the now-historic event—was presented with the Congressional Media of Honor for his bravery that day near the close of WWI, the precise location of the now-heralded event has been disputed since October 1918.
An instructor with MTSU’s geosciences faculty since 1994, Nolan has planned the trip more than a year and funded the research expedition on his own, as well as a preliminary trip that he made to become more familiar with the area and meet French government officials and historians.
In addition to Nolan, the expedition’s lone geographer, other members of the research team included Michael Birdwell, associate professor of history at Tennessee Tech University, in Cookeville; MTSU history graduate David Currey, executive director of Travellers Rest Plantation and Museum and a documentary filmmaker in Nashville; Michael Kelly, an historian for Bartlett’s Battlefield Journeys in Horncastle, Lincolnshire; and Frederic Castier, a French liaison officer and historian specializing in U.S. actions in France during WW1.
Regarding his interest in York, Nolan said, “I’ve always been interested in application of geographic information systems with historical interpretation.
I think it’s interesting to use GIS as a way to tie the written historical records to surface archaeology, and that’s what we did here.”
In January, Nolan went to the National Archives to retrieve copies of the original site maps drawn by York’s commanding officer and French and German trench maps, then superimposed them on a modern map to help discern where to begin the team’s search.
Once a physical starting point was located, Nolan and the team began their search at what they felt was “the most probable area.” Subsequently, he continued, they found “dropped ammo and a German machine-gun position marked by cartridges on the ground” as well as German grenades, all of which “sits very closely with what was reported.”
As a result of the find, French officials in the area would like to place a monument on the discovery site and there is talk of creating a park there, Nolan said. Aside from the historical significance of the find, “that region is kind of depressed, with a lot of population outflow since World War I,” he added, “so they’re interested in economic development and stimulating tourism.”
As for the on-site artifacts, including the rifle cartridges thought to be York’s, “We recovered them and are going to try and match them to (York’s) rifle that’s now housed in the Tennessee State museum. Nolan explained. “We didn’t recover any .45-caliber pistol cartridge cases, and that’s what we wanted to do … but there’s room for more research there.”
Currently a doctoral candidate at Texas State University in San Marcos, where he’s pursuing a Ph.D. in geography, Nolan said he and the research team plan to make a return trip to France in the next year to further their current study, but funding is an issue at this time.
“We do plan to return, but we funded this ourselves so we are looking for additional money that will allow us to continue our work,” Nolan noted.
For more information regarding the project, please visit the researchers’ Web site at www.sergeantyorkproject.com. For a detailed account of the WWI action surrounding York, please access http://worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
• ATTENTION, MEDIA: To request interviews with Nolan or other members of the research team, please contact Lisa L. Rollins in the Office of News and Public Affairs at 615-898-2919 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Alvin Cullum York
Born Dec. 13, 1887, in rural Pall Mall, Tenn., near the Kentucky border, York was the third of 10 children. While still a teen, he assumed the duties of heading the household after his father died in an accident; however, the pressures of taking care of his mother and siblings led him to rebel and he soon earned a reputation as a troublemaker.
York’s wild ways ended when his best friend died in a bar room brawl in 1914. Wracked by guilt, York joined a fundamentalist Christian sect in 1915, which condemned all killing as sinful. However, in 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany and instituted its first successful draft to meet military needs, York was drafted in spite of his vigorous efforts to secure conscientious objector status.
Thus, against his will, York arrived at Camp Gordon in Georgia in November to begin his training. His attempt at conscientious objector status led military officials to keep a close eye on him, but to their reported surprise, he was an excellent shot and soon became the sharpshooter for company G of the 328th Infantry, 82nd Division. Moreover, although York was given the option to remain stateside as a firearms instructor, he chose to go to war.
On October 8, 1918, Corporal Alvin York marched into history. With 16 other soldiers, York and his company left their position near Hill 223 in the vicinity of Chatel-Chehery, France, before daylight. On a cold, rainy, foggy morning, the soldiers of G Company were given the command to intercept a narrow-gauge Decauville railroad supplying the Germans. En route the 17 Americans encountered four Germans eating their breakfast. They pursued them into enemy lines, engaging roughly 80 Germans. Believing the Doughboys to be the leading edge of a superior force, they surrendered.
Once the Germans realized that reinforcements were not coming, the German major shouted commands to machine gunners on the hill above to reposition the guns and murderous fire ensued. Six Americans died and two more fell wounded. Thus, it became York’s responsibility, as a sharpshooter, to silence the gun. After taking it out of action with his accurate fire, he was charged by six Germans and killed them using his .45 caliber pistol, which resulted in the remaining Germans laying down their arms.
Later, York and the seven survivors escorted 132 German prisoners to allied lines. This amazing event forever thrust Alvin York onto the world stage and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.