Major, U.S. Army
Medal of Honor Recipient
World War I
Major Samuel Woodfill (6 January 1883 - 10 August 1951) was a U.S. Army officer who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his heroic actions during World War I. He was a veteran of the Philippine-American War, World War I, and World War II. He was one of the most celebrated American soldiers of the early twentieth century; General John Pershing called Woodfill the most outstanding soldier in World War I.
Samuel Woodfill was born on 6 January 1883 in Bryantsburg, IN, the son of John H. Woodfill. His father was a veteran of the Mexican American War and the American 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 U.S. Army in 1901.
The U.S. was completing its occupation of the Philippines and Woodfill was dispatched as a Private. He 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 of a 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 25 December 1917. The couple bought a home in the town of Fort Thomas.
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 1918 a major battle broke out on the front that lasted for forty-five days and left tens of thousands dead. On the morning of 12 October, 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 forward 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 its effect. As the 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.
Medal of Honor:
Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 60th Infantry, 5th Division.
Place and date: At Cunel, France, 12 October 1918.
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, 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 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.
After returning home at the end of World War I, Woodfill took a number of different jobs before starting a career as an insurance salesman. Along with Alvin York and others, Woodfill was picked in 1921 to serve as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier.
Post-World War I:
Although he was regarded as one of the great heroes of World War I, Woodfill 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. He 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.
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 16 April 1924, said Woodfill had expressed an interest in Congress while attending a reception in Washington, DC, during the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, three years before. 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 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 24 July 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.
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.
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 15 July 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.
World War II:
In May 1942, Woodfill and Alvin C. York - himself a highly-decorated World War I veteran from Tennessee - were commissioned as Majors in the Army. Woodfill told a Kentucky Times-Star reporter at the time that 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, GA. Woodfill apparently spent most of the war as an instructor training recruits in Birmingham, Alabama.
His wife, Lorena, died on 26 March 1942 at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, OH. One account said she was buried in Falmouth. In 1944, Woodfill again resigned from the Army. Because his wife was dead, Woodfill decided not to return to Fort Thomas and he retired to a farm near Vevay in Switzerland County, IN, near the place of his birth. He lived there until his death.
Woodfill was found dead at the Indiana farm on 13 August 1951 at the age of 68. He apparently had died of natural causes several days before he was found. 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 15 August 1951, called Woodfill "one of the greatest soldiers produced by the Bluegrass state."
Medals and Awards:
Medal of Honor; Legion of Honor (France); Croix de Guerre with Palm (France); Meriot di Guerra (Italy); Cross of Prince Danilo, First Class;
An elementary school in Ft. Thomas, KY, is named for Woodfill.
In 2009, the Indiana War Memorial renamed a meeting room in honor of him.
Death and Burial:
Major Samuel Woodfill died on 10 August 1951. He was initially buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison, IN. But through the efforts of Indiana Congressman Earl Wilson, Woodfill's body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA, in August 1955. His grave is located in Section 34, Grave 642.
Source: Military Hall of Honor