By James L. Ballou
One day in October, 2004, the Director of the Nahant Public Library, Daniel de Stefano, was cleaning out an old corner of the Attic. The lack of funds to maintain the building weighed heavily on his mind. He suddenly tripped over an old pipe. When he lifted the end of the “pipe” he discovered it was no pipe at all, but the muzzle of a machine gun. Daniel and John Welsh, a library trustee, began to study the artifact in great detail. Thus began a long odyssey through the bureaucratic system. It was a treasure hunt, at times exciting, at other times terrifying.
It was indeed a machine gun, a powerful Army weapon, but what if it was worth some money? Research revealed that it had been donated to the library by Lt. Mayland P. Lewis, a clerk attached to the Adjutant General’s Office (1918) in France. Lt. Lewis had picked up the machine gun from a pile captured by Cpl. Alvin C. York, on Oct.8, 1918. Without any “red tape” or any authority he just brought it home. Further exploration revealed that with the proper provenance connecting the Maxim to Alvin York it could fetch as much as $100,000. Unregistered it would be contraband, subject to seizure and destruction. At this point it was decided to turn the Maxim over to Chief Bill Waters and Sgt. Robert Dwyer of the Nahant, MA Police Dept. for safe keeping.
Nahant’s Welcome Home Parade for “The Boys From Over There” in 1919
It was Friday, July 4, 1919, eight months after the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918 when the Armistice that ended the “War to End All Wars” had been signed. On the small island of Nahant the residents gathered. The marchers in the parade from the military were all in uniform to celebrate the return of the boys from “over there.” The women are in their white shirtfronts and the men are in their light suits topped with the traditional straw hats. The military personal are miserable in their tunics of wool. Only the occasional Atlantic breeze gives them some relief. The town is decorated in patriotic bunting. All the veterans of the Civil War and Spanish War are present. The Boy Scouts have been given a special honor to pull a small red wagon with an actual “Hun” machine gun and other captured weapons. The machine gun is a Maxim 08/15, one of the 35 machine guns captured by Sgt. Alvin York, the Hero of the Argonne, recipient of the Medal of Honor, DSC, and Croix de Guerre as well as the Legion of Honor given by Marshal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander.
Description of the Historic Maxim Gun
The gun is a typical M1908/15 Maxim Light Machine Gun, one the most common machine guns of the Great War. It is number 3364 b, manufactured by Erfurt in 1918. This government arsenal produced 33,000 Maxim M1908/15s, and was not the most prolific of the makers. That honor goes to Spandau, which produced a half a million, which is why many still refer to German machine guns as “Spandaus.”
The gun is just as it was in 1919, a dirty weapon not cleaned in 90 years, but also it had not been deactivated or altered. Tattered remnants of the original cloth sling still clung to the buttstock loop. Lt. Lewis verified that he chose this weapon from the pile captured by Sgt. York, thus giving this gun the desired provenance.
It is complete with lock (not matching), muzzle booster, filler cap and bipod. The bluing is fading but not rusted. The bore is typical of a weapon fired with corrosive ammo and not cleaned. The action was smooth and the lock easily removed. It is just as if it had been taken from the field on 8, October, 1918. One had the feeling that if water were added to the jacket, a belt inserted, and the action cocked back twice, the “old relic” would come back to life. The gun still had the attachment for the 100-round drum or could be fed from a 250-round belt box. Upon closer examination, the remains of green paint could be seen as some guns have been found in camouflaged design. Its caliber is 7.92x57mm, commonly called 8mm German. The rate of fire was 550 to 600 rounds per minute and though the “light machine gun” weighed 43 pounds with the bipod and with 5 pints of water in the water jacket, it was still an efficient fighting machine.
Sgt. Alvin C. York
Most of our readers are familiar with the Sgt. York story having grown up with the 1941 MGM movie Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. Movies are far from accurate and often take liberties with the truth. A remarkable 29-page document has emerged which will be the sole basis of York’s history. An inspirational story, full of scripture and truth, it is The Diary of Alvin York by Alvin C. York. Many myths are destroyed and truths revealed in the words of a brave and devout Christian.
Alvin Cullum York was born on December 19, 1897, at Pall Mall Valley, Tennessee; the third of eleven children. Lean and tall, Alvin grew up in the Mountains of Appalachia. He worked hard and honed his wilderness skills with rifle and axe. He became an expert shot but was a little rough, and a bit of a trouble maker. That was until he found his faith in a stern Fundamentalist sect that guided the rest of his days. When the draft came in 1917 he willingly reported for duty. The movie embellished his agony, but correctly showed the strong influence of his company commander, George Edward Burton. They became strong friends and Alvin named his first born after him. The son is still alive today.
Alvin York did not like to kill but readily “teched off” the enemy when it was necessary. York not only served, but due to his native insight and backwoods skill with a rifle he distinguished himself in an outstanding way in the woods of the Argonne. He and sixteen other men, under the command of Sgt. Bernard Earley were sent out to reconnoiter the surrounding hills. They came under fire of many Maxim machine guns. York was acting Corporal at that time. Nine men were killed and Early was severely wounded, leaving York in charge. He took out several machine gun nests with precise fire from his (in all likelihood) 1917 Enfield (not the ’03 Springfield as is commonly believed). Along with a captured German Major they enticed 132 men into surrendering. A German officer and five men with fixed bayonets began to charge him at a distance of 25 yards. Having only half a clip left in his rifle, he drew his 1911 Colt pistol and dispatched the six quickly advancing Germans starting with the sixth man at the rear and worked his way up until none were left.
In all, this combat feat was remarkable with 132 enemy captured along with 35 machine guns. For his action Sgt. Alvin C. York received The Congressional Medal of Honor. Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing personally gave him the D.S.C., Marshal Foch, the Legion of Honor, and later, April 24, 1919, Foch also gave him the Palm Croix De Guerre. Ever humble, York refused to acknowledge the action as his alone. He was a real Hero.
The Captured Maxim
“What happened to the captured Maxim,” one might ask? This brings us to Sunday, March 22, 2009. Through the united effort of the town officials, Director de Stefano was able to find a museum with federal funding that was thrilled to receive an authentic Sgt. York artifact. It will find a home in a special exhibit at the Museum of the Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. To celebrate this Victory, Director de Stefano invited the public to view the “Maxim from the Attic” and be photographed with this historic artifact before it left for its new home.
The above story underscores the need for HR Bill 442, the Veteran’s Heritage Act. If it were not for the stalwart effort of a few dedicated people this precious heritage would have been lost forever.
The 29-page diary of Sergeant York can be seen at: www.acacia.pair.com/Acacia.Vignettes/The.Diary.of.Alvin.York. html#The%20Diary
(The author would like to thank the following for their assistance: Daniel de Stefano, Director of the Nahant Public Library; Bonnie D’Orlando, The Nahant Historical Society; Sgt. Robert Dwyer, Nahant Police Dept.; John Rice Irwin, Curator, The Museum of Appalachia; Chief Bill Waters, Nahant Police Dept.; and Stephen R. Hamel, VP OO, Inc.)
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V13N4 (January 2010)|