Samuel Woodfill

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Samuel Woodfill
Samuel Woodfill.jpg
Woodfill in his Army uniform displaying Medal of Honor
Born (1883-01-06)January 6, 1883
Belleview, Jefferson County, Indiana
Died August 10, 1951(1951-08-10) (aged 68)
Indiana
Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1901 – 1922
1942 – 1944
Rank Major
Unit 60th Infantry, Fifth Division
Battles/wars World War I
*Meuse-Argonne Offensive
World War II
Awards Medal of Honor
Legion of Honor
French Croix de Guerre with palm
Italy's Meriot di Guerra
Cross of Prince Danilo, First Class

Samuel Woodfill (January 6, 1883 – August 10, 1951) was a Major in the United States Army. He was a veteran of the Philippine–American War, World War I, and World War II. Woodfill was one of the most celebrated American soldiers of the early 20th century. General John Pershing called Woodfill the most outstanding soldier in World War I.[1] During an offensive in October 1918, he single handedly took out three German machine gun emplacements while suffering under the effect of mustard gas, and was able to successfully lead his men safely back to the American lines without casualties. At the end of the conflict, Woodfill was the most decorated American soldier to have participated in the conflict; he received the Medal of Honor, the Croix de Guerre with palm leaves, the Meriot di Guerra, and the Cross of Prince Danilo among other awards.[2]

After returning home at the end of the war, Woodfill took a number of different jobs before starting a career as an insurance salesman. He was among the three soldiers chosen to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, joining fellow Medal of Honor recipients Charles Whittlesey and Alvin York. At the outbreak of World War II, he was commissioned as a major and spent two years training recruits before resigning from the army after the death of his wife in 1943. Woodfill retired to a farm near the place of his birth where he lived until his death. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Early life[edit]

Samuel Woodfill was born January 6, 1883 in Bryantsburg, Indiana, the son of John H. Woodfill. His father was a veteran of the Mexican–American War and the Civil War, having served in the 5th Regiment Indiana Infantry. Woodfill learned to hunt at an early age and was a good shot by age ten. He received a basic education in local schools and enlisted in the United States Army in 1901.

Military career[edit]

The United States was completing its occupation of the Philippines and Woodfill was dispatched as a private. Woodfill was involved in a number of conflicts with the Filipino guerilla forces. He remained in the Philippines for several years before being transferred to Alaska in 1910 during a border dispute with Canada and Great Britain over a portion of the Yukon. In 1912 he was moved again and stationed in Fort Thomas in Kentucky.

In 1913 Woodfill was promoted to lieutenant. The following year he was dispatched as part a of force to guard the Mexican American border during the Mexican Civil War. Their presence was sufficient to halt the cross border violence and he saw no action there. In 1917 his company returned to Fort Thomas. He began courting Lorena Wiltshire and the couple married on December 25, 1917. The couple bought a home in the town of Fort Thomas.

World War I[edit]

At the outbreak of World War I, Woodfill’s regiment, the 60th Infantry, was attached to the Army’s Fifth Division and dispatched to Europe as part of the American expeditionary force under the command of General John Pershing. Woodfill’s regiment was placed in the defenses between Meuse and the Argonne in France in August 1918.

In September a major battle broke out on the front that lasted for forty-five days and left tens of thousands dead. On the morning of October 12 Woodfill and his company were stationed near Cunel when his men were advancing through thick fog. As they moved forward, machine gun fire broke out from German held positions targeting Woodfill and his men. While the other men took cover, Woodfill quickly advanced on the machine gun emplacement while avoiding being hit. As he approached the emplacement he opened fire, disabling three German soldiers. A German officer rushed Woodfill and engaged him in hand-to-hand combat, but Woodfill gained the advantage and killed him.

With the threat removed, Woodfill signaled for his company to advance when a second machine gun opened fire. Woodfill ordered his men to charge the emplacement, which was quickly overran and three Germans captured. His men again resumed their advance only to have a third machine gun open fire. Woodfill ordered another charge. As he approached the machine gun he opened fire with his rifle, disabling five German soldiers. Woodfill was first to reach the gun emplacement and entered the bunker pit. He discharged all the shots in his pistol without hitting either of the two soldiers manning the position. He then seized a nearby pick axe and clubbed the two soldiers to death.

Mustard gas had become heavy in the area during the fighting and Woodfill and his men began to suffer under its effect. As the its effects worsened, Woodfill ordered his men to withdraw to the allied battle line. None of his men died in the fierce fighting, but several, including Woodfill, were hospitalized in Bordeaux after their retreat. Woodfill saw no more action for the remainder of the war and remained in medical care for several weeks while he received treatment for the effects of the poisonous gas. His heroics earned him a number of medals and awards, but he would suffer from weakened lungs for the rest of his life.

Considered to be World War I's most decorated soldier, Woodfill received, among others, the Medal of Honor (presented by General Pershing), the French Croix de Guerre with palm, Italy's Meriot di Guerra and the Cross of Prince Danilo, First Class, and also made a Chevalier of the (French) Legion of Honor.

Along with Alvin York and others, Woodfill was picked in 1921 to serve as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier. He was regarded as one of the country's great heroes of World War I, but apparently struggled to make a living after the war.

Despite his honors, Woodfill - on a sergeant's salary - struggled to pay his bills and to pay off the mortgage on his Fort Thomas home. Woodfill took a job in 1922 as a $6-a-day carpenter working on the Ohio River dam project at Silver Grove. Ned Hastings, manager of the Keith Theater in Cincinnati, sent pictures of Woodfill working at the dam site to New York. There, a theatrical group involved in charitable work raised money to pay off the mortgage on Woodfill's Fort Thomas home and to pay up an insurance policy.

Later life[edit]

In 1924 an effort was made by some independent Democrats to encourage Woodfill to run for the United States Congress and challenge Democrat incumbent Arthur B. Rouse. A Kentucky Post account on April 16, 1924, said Woodfill had expressed an interest in Congress while attending a reception in Washington, D.C., three years before during the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When Woodfill was proposed as a candidate for Congress, he was out of town doing promotional work for American Legion posts in Massachusetts. Mrs. Woodfill, contacted at her home in Fort Thomas, downplayed the idea. She said when her husband was first contacted to participate in the dedication event, he had expressed reluctance, saying, "I'm tired of being a circus pony. Every time there is something doing they trot me out to perform." Mrs. Woodfill said her husband disliked public events because he was basically a bashful person who did not enjoy the glare of public attention. She added, though, "My husband may not have the education of a lawyer, scholar or the like, but if reputation, honesty, service and truth were the only requisite, he is amply qualified to fill the high position to which his friends would elect him." Upon his return to Northern Kentucky, Woodfill quickly put an end to candidate speculation, saying he wanted no part of elected office.

Locally, Woodfill remained a celebrity. In October 1924, a life-size painting of Woodfill was presented to Woodfill Elementary School by Mrs. Woodfill. The painting was to hang in the school along with copies of his citations and a brief history of his life. And in October 1928, Woodfill and his wife were the special guests of honor at the Greater Cincinnati Industrial Exposition. That account said Woodfill was living in retirement on a farm in Campbell County. A later account said Woodfill had purchased about 60 acres (240,000 m2) of farm land between Silver Grove and Flagg Springs in rural Campbell County in 1925, with the vision of planting apple and peach trees. A report on July 24, 1929, said many of the trees died, so Woodfill purchased more trees. The account said he worked hard trying to make the orchard into a paying business, but the orchard never became a success.

By 1929 Woodfill found himself with a $2,000 debt. To keep from losing the farm, the 46-year-old Woodfill took a job as a watchman at the Newport Rolling Mill on July 15, 1929 - working daily 2-11 p.m. Woodfill was still working as a guard at the Andrews Steel plant in Newport and living at his home in Fort Thomas when the U.S. entered World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In May 1942, Woodfill and Alvin C. York - himself a highly decorated World War I veteran from Tennessee - were commissioned Army majors. Woodfill told a Kentucky Times-Star reporter at the time he was not aware the Army was going to give him the commission, which he termed a pleasant surprise. Woodfill was 59 and the Army commissions were part of a national campaign to boost national spirit and enlistments. Woodfill was later featured in an Army publicity picture, which showed him firing a rifle at Fort Benning, Georgia. Woodfill apparently spent most of the war as an instructor in Birmingham, Alabama.

His wife Lorena died March 26, 1942, at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. One account said she was buried in Falmouth. In 1944, Woodfill again resigned from the Army, and he retired to a farm near Vevay in Switzerland County, Indiana. Because his wife was dead, Woodfill decided not to return to Fort Thomas.

In a 1978 Kentucky Post story, Agatha Sackstedder, who grew up in a house across the street from the Woodfills, described Mrs. Woodfill as tall and elegant. She added that cookies and a big bowl of fresh fruit were always on the family table. She said the Woodfills had no children and Mrs. Woodfill seemed to enjoy having a young girl visit her. Mrs. Sackstedder described Woodfill as a strong looking, very tall man with a ruddy, happy looking face.

Woodfill was found dead at the Indiana farm on August 13, 1951, at the age of 68. He apparently had died of natural causes several days before he was found.[3] Neighbors said they had not missed him because he had talked of going to Cincinnati to buy plumbing supplies. Despite his Indiana roots, a Kentucky Post editorial on August 15, 1951, called Woodfill "one of the greatest soldiers produced by the Bluegrass state." Woodfill was buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison, Indiana. But through the efforts of Indiana Congressman Earl Wilson, Woodfill's body was removed and buried at Arlington National Cemetery in August 1955. His grave can be found in Section 34, Grave 642.[4]

Honors and awards[edit]

Military decorations[edit]

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

An accomplished sharpshooter, Woodfill earned the Medal of Honor for actions on October 12, 1918. He singlehandedly disabled several German machine-gun nests and killed many enemy combatants with rifle, pistol and pickaxe.[5]

Citation:

While he was leading his company against the enemy, his line came under heavy machinegun fire, which threatened to hold up the advance. Followed by 2 soldiers at 25 yards (23 m), this officer went out ahead of his first line toward a machinegun nest and worked his way around its flank, leaving the 2 soldiers in front. When he got within 10 yards (9.1 m) of the gun it ceased firing, and 4 of the enemy appeared, 3 of whom were shot by 1st Lt. Woodfill. The fourth, an officer, rushed at 1st Lt. Woodfill, who attempted to club the officer with his rifle. After a hand-to-hand struggle, 1st Lt. Woodfill killed the officer with his pistol. His company thereupon continued to advance, until shortly afterwards another machinegun nest was encountered. Calling on his men to follow, 1st Lt. Woodfill rushed ahead of his line in the face of heavy fire from the nest, and when several of the enemy appeared above the nest he shot them, capturing 3 other members of the crew and silencing the gun. A few minutes later this officer for the third time demonstrated conspicuous daring by charging another machinegun position, killing 5 men in one machinegun pit with his rifle. He then drew his revolver and started to jump into the pit, when 2 other gunners only a few yards away turned their gun on him. Failing to kill them with his revolver, he grabbed a pick lying nearby and killed both of them. Inspired by the exceptional courage displayed by this officer, his men pressed on to their objective under severe shell and machinegun fire.[5]

Other honors[edit]

An elementary school in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky is named for him[6] and in 2009, the Indiana War Memorial renamed a meeting room in honor of him.[7]

See also[edit]

An analysis of Lt Sam Woodfill's action at Cunel using aerial photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82596826@N03/7765126436/

References[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.
  1. ^ World War One, Priscilla Mary Roberts, 2006, p. 1968, total pages: 2454, webpage: Books-Google-kC.
  2. ^ Funk, p. 109
  3. ^ "Samuel Woodfill, Major, United States Army". arlingtoncemetery.net. 24 August 2006. Retrieved 19 July 2011. 
  4. ^ "Samuel Woodfill". Claim to Fame: Medal of Honor recipients. Find a Grave. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "Medal of Honor recipients - World War I". Medal of Honor citations. United States Army Center of Military History. April 15, 2005. Retrieved October 23, 2006. 
  6. ^ "Samuel Woodfill Elementary". Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Indiana War Memorial renames rooms for state heroes". Retrieved March 17, 2010.