Officer says he’s pinpointed Sgt. York’s stand
5,000 artifacts and exhausting research help American zero in on where a marker will be
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 26, 2008
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Thousands and thousands of his own euros. Innumerable hours spent in dusty archives, all those trips into the woods. A lifetime of work crammed into the equivalent of 20 years of spare time.
It’s all worth it now for Lt. Col. Doug Mastriano.
In October, near the 90th anniversary of the exploits of Sgt. Alvin York, Medal of Honor recipient and reluctant soldier, Mastriano will see a monument placed at the spot in the Argonne forest where he believes the almost unbelievable happened: York killed 25 German soldiers and captured 132 others with only seven other surviving U.S. soldiers, a Springfield rifle and a .45-caliber pistol for help.
"It’s made out of lava stone. It should last at least 100 years," Mastriano said.
The monument is at the end of an interpretive walking trail that starts in the town of Châtel Chéhéry, which is a 3½ hour drive from Heidelberg. The trail ambles about 1½ miles through pastures and woods, with nine points to stop and read the signs in English, French and German.
If things work out, some 40 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division will jump into a nearby farmer’s field, then march into town to add to the festivities surrounding the anniversary — actually on Oct. 8 but to be celebrated the Saturday before.
Mastriano, who became interested in York as a child when he watched the movie "Sergeant York," saw his interest deepen after he became an Army officer.
A devout Christian with a bachelor’s degree in history, Mastriano discussed York’s Christian pacifism in a military history class he taught. He was frustrated by the lack of specifics on the actual location of York’s actions, he said, where York killed so many to prevent their killing of his friends.
Two years ago, a group of academics — "The Sergeant York Project 2006," primarily from York’s home state of Tennessee — claimed they were 80 percent certain that they had found the spot. It wasn’t the spot Mastriano had found.
"It’s not even in the right valley," Mastriano said at the time.
He wanted to settle the matter with a meeting, showing the Tennessee group his massive amount of evidence based on American and German accounts, terrain analysis, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, eyewitness accounts and more than 5,000 artifacts he found — German cartridges, buttons, whistles, watches, and the spent cartridges from either York’s weapons, or those just like them.
"Everything was where it should have been," Mastriano said.
The Tennessee group declined. "They said, not no, but ‘Hell, no,’’’ said Mastriano, who works at NATO headquarters in Heidelberg. "They’re not explaining anything to me or the French."
The regional French authorities were persuaded by Mastriano’s argument and evidence, as were others. Jeffrey Clarke, director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, told Mastriano in a letter last year that the center would "sponsor" his work.
Maj. Gen. David Zabecki, retired military historian, is an enthusiastic supporter.
"Your pinpointing of the site…combined with your discovery at the scene of all the shell casings from the 21 rounds of .45-cal (automatic Colt pistol) that Sgt. York reportedly fired, all but kills the nagging historical revisionism that has attempted to discredit the York story in recent years," Zabecki wrote in a letter.
With all this accomplished, Mastriano said he’ll have more time to work on his book, tentatively titled "Lions of the Argonne."
One lion is, of course, York. The other is the German officer, Lt. Paul Vollmer, who helped make York’s feat possible.
Vollmer, after seeing York shoot so many German soldiers, including one of his friends, approached and offered to surrender his men who were on the hill, still firing.
"Vollmer blew a whistle and yelled an order …," and the German soldiers dropped their weapons and joined the other prisoners, Mastriano said.
"It ended the way it did because York and Vollmer wanted to save lives," he said.
For more information, or updates, visit Mastriano’s Web site: www.sgtyorkdiscovery.com.
Artifacts recovered from where York earned the Medal of Honor on Oct.8, 1918. In the photo are Prussian and Württemberg World War I buttons, insignia, coins, equipment belt loops and hooks from both US and German soldiers. More than 5,000 artifacts have been recovered from the battle where York earned the Medal of Honor in the Argonne Forest, France.
COURTESY OF DOUGLAS MASTRIANO