HARRISBURG, Pa. — The World War I exploits of Sgt. Alvin C. York netted Gary Cooper a best actor Academy Award and Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano a degree, a book deal — and academic backlash.
Mastriano had a deep interest in York long before he led anti-mask protests last year, fought tirelessly to overturn then-President Donald Trump’s reelection loss and showed up outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot.
Mastriano’s research into York helped earn him a doctorate in history from the University of New Brunswick and a publishing deal with the University Press of Kentucky, but critics argue his work does not hold up to scrutiny.
A crack shot, York led a small group of U.S. soldiers behind German lines to disrupt machine gunfire while badly outnumbered outside the village of Chatel-Chehery, France, in the waning weeks of the war. More than 20 German soldiers were killed and 132 captured, winning the Tennessee native widespread fame and the Medal of Honor.
More than a century later, a battle continues to rage over where exactly it all took place.
For more than a decade, other researchers have questioned Mastriano’s claim to have conclusively proved exactly where York was when his lethal marksmanship played out in October 1918. They argue his research is plagued with errors and that a walking trail to the battle location he helped build actually takes visitors to the wrong spot.
In the past two months, University of Oklahoma history graduate student James Gregory has filed complaints with Mastriano’s publisher and with the Canadian university.
“Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever,” Gregory said in a Jan. 25 email to the University Press of Kentucky, identifying footnotes with no apparent relation to their corresponding book passages.
“Any work done using Mastriano is built upon poor, false research,” Gregory wrote.
Both institutions have told Gregory they have opened preliminary reviews.
Mastriano has not responded to repeated requests for comment, including written questions, from The Associated Press.
The 57-year-old Franklin County Republican, first elected two years ago and currently pondering a 2022 run for governor, seemed to emerge out of nowhere last year to become a one-man force in Pennsylvania politics.
He has boasted of speaking with Trump at least 15 times and organized an election hearing in Gettysburg that featured Rudy Giuliani and a phone call appearance by Trump.
He was even scheduled to speak on the U.S. Capitol steps during the early afternoon on Jan. 6 and had organized charter buses to Trump’s speech. Despite calls from some Democratic Senate colleagues to resign, Mastriano has maintained he broke no laws the day of the Capitol breach and has not been charged.
Before Mastriano entered the political limelight, he attracted attention for his claim to have pinpointed the precise location of York’s famed battle. He organized construction of the 2-mile (3-kilometer) “Circuit du Sergeant York” trail, lined with interpretive markers and dedicated amid fanfare in 2008.
But a multidisciplinary team that conducted its own surveys of the general battle area concluded the correct spot is very likely about a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) south of Mastriano’s purported location.
“The issue is not about a few meters’ difference between the two sites,” said Dutch journalist Stephan van Meulebrouck, who has written about the York site controversy. “It is about good research versus bad research and the inability, or even the unwillingness of certain parties in this debate to admit to that fact.”
In his 2014 book “Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne,” and elsewhere, Mastriano has repeatedly dismissed any notion that there is a legitimate dispute about the validity of his preferred site, writing that “we know with certainty the location of the York action,” that it was ”discovered with 100% certainty” and that it “has been located and verified.”
Gregory became interested in Mastriano’s book as part of his own research into other members of York’s squad, but had difficulty verifying some of Mastriano’s references.
After an Associated Press review found additional questionable footnotes, Gregory sent the Kentucky publisher 35 citations he considers fraudulent. In early March, he made a nearly identical complaint to the University of New Brunswick, where the York research figured prominently in Mastriano’s doctoral studies.
The university’s research integrity officer, vice president David MaGee, told Gregory he was conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine if a full investigation is warranted. He and other university officials declined comment to the AP, citing privacy laws.
The University Press of Kentucky is looking into Gregory’s claims, said director Ashley Runyon, as it would with any such allegation.
“Scholars are specifically asked if there are any errors of fact or interpretation,” Runyon told the AP, noting the book underwent standard peer review, received positive reviews and won a $5,000 prize for a writer’s debut book on military history, foreign affairs or intelligence matters.
Gregory and other researchers are also highly skeptical of Mastriano’s assertion that the photo on his book’s dust jacket shows York leading German officers and other prisoners. The official U.S. Army Signal Corps caption from 1918 indicates it was taken almost two weeks before York’s heroics.
Mastriano’s own description of the photo has changed over time.
In a 2007 article by Mastriano for Armchair General magazine, a caption says the image “significantly aided” his research and “is now believed to show” York’s prisoners. That caption makes no claim about which Germans are shown or if York is in the photo, saying an Army photographer “took the photo but at the time they were not identified as York’s prisoners.”
Four years later, in a 2011 lecture at the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he was more definitive, saying the photo had been mislabeled.
“We are fairly sure this is of York. I know that’s hard to see, but you can see the mustache that represents York, it looks like York,” he said.
In his book, Mastriano wrote the photo “is confirmed to be” of “York and his German captives, being clearly identified by the presence” of three German officers at the head of the group — Paul Vollmer, Max Thoma and Paul Lipp.
In a 2017 email, Mastriano told a reference historian at the Army War College Library that he had “no idea” why the government photo indicated it was from Sept. 26, 12 days before York’s heroics, but “it is simply wrong.”
He assured the historian the photo had been “thoroughly scrutinized and analyzed and correctly annotated in my book.” Mastriano said he knew of no American action on Sept. 26 that would have produced more than 100 prisoners and three German officers.
But Gregory has found other photos of Vollmer that do not seem to match the image and says there are records showing Americans captured hundreds of Germans in that area on Sept. 26.
The 59 pages of footnotes in Mastriano’s book cite — more than 150 times — York’s 1928 pseudo-autobiography. Among those references are minor errors such as incorrect page notations — but other mistakes are more substantial.
A section about U.S. soldiers in York’s unit training in Europe includes two footnotes referring to the 1928 book. But those references lead to York’s recollections of training in Georgia.
In another place, a footnote in a section about York being offered $20,000 a week to join a theatrical revue leads instead to a description of York hunting in Tennessee.
Mastriano, who was stationed in Germany with NATO, has said he spent at least 100 days in the woods around Chatel-Chehery, scouring the area for metal artifacts and other relics of the battle.
He found bullets and bullet casings he believes were fired by York and says those artifacts — along with a period map, battle accounts and other evidence — led him to the spot on private land.
He donated a trove of the collected material to the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History in Washington in 2009.
He has also given public lectures about York and heads up what he calls the “ Sgt. York Discovery Expedition,” which has a website that highlights his research and the trail.
But the other team zeroed in on a different area during surveys in 2006 and 2009. They recovered metal pieces engraved with York’s unit name and material they believe was dropped when a large group of Germans surrendered, and found the temporary grave locations of Americans buried near York’s heroic stand.
“For the scientific community and most of the serious historians, I provided enough evidence to pretty much prove it was in the right place,” said Tom Nolan, who researched the site for a doctorate in geographic information science from Texas State University.
Mastriano dismissed doubters in a September 2018 speech at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
“They went back after our findings and hit the German archives to try to fill in their gaps,” but they were unsuccessful in debunking him, Mastriano asserted.
Among his detractors is independent researcher and expert metal detector operator Brad Posey, who first met Mastriano when both men lived in Germany.
Posey had spent about three days helping Mastriano survey the French site, but the artifacts he found and the practices he observed convinced him that Nolan’s site was far more likely to be correct.
“When I went into this, I honestly thought that he’s really found the spot,” Posey said. “After one day with him up there I knew, this is not the right spot.”
He subsequently signed on with Nolan’s team and did his own research in the German military archives, finding no conclusive evidence to back up Mastriano’s narrative.
In the Cooper biopic that became the highest-grossing movie of 1941, York seemed to have his own geographic doubts. As his squad and prisoners reached a fork in the path, York asked a German officer, “Which way would you be a-goin’?”
When the officer suggested one route, York marched them off the other way.