Remembrance and the Great War

A 1919 photo of Sgt. Alvin C. York revisiting the hillside in the Forest of Argonne in France where his World War I heroics in 1918 won him a Medal of Honor. He is credited with killing 25 German soldiers, capturing 132 more and silencing 35 machine guns. Photo: New York Public Library / Digital Collections
Or how a legendary warrior gave his name to an avenue — and how the East Side pays tribute to pluck, heroism and valor

It is the ultimate Upper East Side trivia question. But first, a warning: Most lifetime neighborhood residents get it wrong.

How did York Avenue get its name? Did it come from A) The Duke of York? B) New York City itself? C) Yorkville, the community it traverses? D) The Continental Army’s triumph at the Battle of Yorktown? Or E) None of the above?

If you answered “E,” give yourself a free, 1.6-mile victory promenade up York from East 59th Street to East 92nd Street.

The 33-block swath between the Queensboro Bridge and Asphalt Green is actually named for Sgt. Alvin C. York, the citizen‐soldier-hero of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces in World War I whose exploits 100 years ago, under withering German machine gun fire, won him a Medal of Honor.

In the last great push of what was then known as the Great War, in the Forest of Argonne in France, on October 8, 1918, York’s company was trapped behind enemy lines, and with most of his fellow soldiers killed or injured, he advanced, all-but alone, toward a machine-gun nest.

By the time the smoke cleared, he had killed at least 25 German gunners, silenced 35 machine guns and captured 132 soldiers, who he then marched backed toward American lines, according to 1919 Army citations and contemporaneous press accounts.

Hailed as the “greatest civilian solider of the war” by General of the Armies John J. Pershing, York’s deeds were called the “greatest act by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe” by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French commander of Allied forces in World War I.

New Yorkers took notice of his derring-do: He got a ticker tape parade in 1919, the New York Stock Exchange halted trading as brokers hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him around the floor, and on April 11, 1928, after a vote by the old Board of Aldermen, forerunner of today’s City Council, the uptown portion of Avenue A was named in his honor.

Flash forward exactly 90 years: On Wednesday, April 11, outside the Webster Library branch, at 1465 York Avenue near 78th Street, a group called the East Side World War I Centennial Commemoration marked the anniversary of the street renaming and recalled York Avenue’s colorful history as part of the celebrations to mark the end of the war.

The York Avenue Ramblers performed period classics like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” U.S. flags were proudly waved. Beannochio’s, at 1413 York Avenue, served up savory apple muffins.

And organizers promised it was just the beginning of a series of events commemorating what was once called as “The War to End All Wars.”

“The more heroes that people have to look up to, the better it is for all of us,” said Howard Teich, co-chair of the centennial events.

He said the idea was to “give kids a relationship to the history of their country,” and to foster pride in children who live or go to school on or near a street named for a genuine war hero.

“It’s a great piece of Americana,” he added.

And it’s educational for adults, too. As an East Sider for some 40-odd years who lives only a few blocks away, Teich said he never knew until last year that York Avenue was named for Sgt. York, who was born in 1887 and died in 1964.

Even Gerald York — the 70-year-old grandson of Sgt. York and a Vietnam War veteran who retired from the Army after 31 years in 2000 with the rank of colonel — had no idea until a year ago his grandfather had given his name to the street.

“I only learned when I recently saw a newspaper article my grandmother had kept from the renaming ceremony in 1928,” York said in a phone interview from his Tennessee home.

Though he had been stationed at Fort Monmouth and made trips to Fort Hamilton during his military service, he had never been to York Avenue until he was invited to participate in the commemorative event.

“The locals couldn’t have been friendlier,” York said. “They were very patriotic, and they all seemed to have these small American flags they were waving in the air.

He said he was impressed when the owner of Beannochio’s approached him and said that, in order to educate himself, he had watch “Sergeant York,” the iconic 1941 film portraying his grandfather’s heroics for which Gary Cooper in the title role won a best actor Oscar.

“It meant a lot to me,” York said.

The enthusiastic and upbeat reaction was no surprise to Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who is the other centennial co-chair and has lived in the neighborhood for nearly a quarter of a century:

“Patriotism is alive and doing quite well on the Upper East Side and Yorkville,” she said.