Maj. Sam Woodfill’s life story
is a profile in courage
His bravery in battle followed him throughout his life
(October 2018) – Praised as “Outstanding” by AEF commander Gen. John Pershing, Samuel Woodfill would be resoundingly praised as a hero following his return from Europe after World War I. For his bravery and heroism, he would receive the Medal of Honor as well as numerous other military honors both from the United States and several European nations.
Though Woodfill reportedly disliked publicity, Indiana’s war hero would receive no shortage of it as he met with presidents, was given a standing ovation in Congress, and was chosen by Pershing to represent the Army’s infantry as a pallbearer in the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Renowned for his incredible feats as a soldier and remarkable humility as a hero, the Outstanding Soldier of the First World War is considered to this day to be one of Indiana’s greatest war heroes.
Maj. Samuel Woodfill (third from right in front) is honored in 1921 by then-President Calvin Coolidge (center in light suit) during his visit to Washington, D.C. His wife, Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire Woodfill is pictured at far left.
Woodfill was born in Belleview, Ind., in Jefferson County on Jan. 6, 1883, to John and Christina Woodfill. His father, John S. G. Woodfill, was reportedly a veteran of the Mexican War and fought in the Civil War with the 5th Indiana Volunteers. It is reported that at an early age Sam was an excellent marksman, learning how to shoot from his father at age 7. He would further hone these skills through hunting in areas near his family’s Indiana farm.
• Printed by permission from the Indiana World War I Centennial Project. Connor McBride is a graduate student of Public History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and intern for the Indiana State Historic Records Advisory Board. He received his B.S. in history from Indiana State University in 2015.
Only a few years after passing on these skills to his young son, his father passed away when Sam had only turned 13. Choosing to continue his father’s military legacy, Samuel Woodfill enlisted in the Army in 1901 in Bryantsburg, Ind., at age 18. He was initially sent to the Philippines, which had recently broken out in war with Filipino forces fighting against the American forces that occupied the islands.
In 1904 he was stationed in Alaska at Fort Egbert, where by 1910 Woodfill had risen to the rank of sergeant. In 1912 he was stationed at Fort Thomas, Ky., for two years until in 1914 his unit was sent to the Mexican Border to protect from bandit attacks against Texas, New Mexico and Arizona by Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his paramilitary forces.
In his down time in Alaska and Texas, Woodfill would continue the pastime he had been cultivating since his father first taught him to shoot a gun – hunting. Woodfill would remember big game hunting in Alaska and would regularly take hunting trips with friends, further sharpening his skills as a huntsman and survivalist in the wilderness amid various climates.
When he first returned from Alaska in 1911, Woodfill met a young woman named Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire of Covington, Ky., and in whom he became very interested. In the December before he would head to France, Woodfill would return to Fort Thomas on leave where he would marry the girl he had fallen for nearly six years previous.
He would marry Wiltshire on Dec. 25, 1917. It would be Lorena, whom Sam would think of whenever his fate seemed uncertain on the battlefields of France, and Sam that Lorena’s mind would race to whenever news from the front reached U.S. newspapers. The two were together whenever possible and reported to be very much in love with one another throughout their lives.
After being promoted to lieutenant, in April 1918 he was dispatched to Europe as part of the 60th Infantry, Fifth Division. His division would be sent to the Meuse-Argonne front in fall 1918 where they would participate in some of the final Allied offensives of World War I and the main engagement of the war that involved the American Expeditionary Forces. This offensive would begin in late September 1918 and continue until the signing of the armistice in November. It was during this offensive that the commander of M Company of the 60th Infantry Regiment, 1st Lieut. Samuel Woodfill, would earn his place in history as a war hero.
On the morning of Oct. 12 near Cunel, France, his company came under heavy machinegun fire, holding up the advance. Woodfill would proceed toward a machine gun nest, accompanied by only two privates who followed behind him at 25 yards. Upon flanking the gun, its crew of four soldiers stopped firing and emerged from the nest. Woodfill shot and killed three of the gun’s crew and was rushed by the fourth, a German officer, whom he killed with his pistol after grappling in brief but fierce hand-to-hand combat.
His company proceeded forward from here where they encountered a second machine gun nest. Woodfill reportedly rushed ahead under heavy fire, killing several members of the crew and taking three of them as prisoners. Upon encountering a third machine gun nest, Woodfill once again charged into the pit, killing five enemy soldiers with his rifle.
He then drew his revolver to engage a second nearby pit where the two enemy soldiers turned the gun on him. After failing to kill them with his revolver, he picked up a nearby trench pick, which he used to kill both enemy soldiers.
At this point Woodfill was exhausted after heavy exertion, suffering from exposure to mustard gas, as well as a piece of shrapnel that had struck him in the thigh during the last encounter.
“It was not much of a wound,” Woodfill would later recall. “But they sent me to the rear.”
He made it back through American lines and was hospitalized in Bordeaux, where he would spend the rest of the war recovering from his injuries.
For his actions, Woodfill was awarded the Medal of Honor, which would be presented to him by Gen. John Pershing at a ceremony on Feb. 9, 1919, in Chaumont, France. In addition to this honor, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French government and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He would later also be presented with the Meriot di Guerra by the government of Italy and the Cross of Prince Danilo by Montenegro. Along with these awards, he would receive a promotion to the rank of captain.
Shortly after this, Woodfill would return to his unit, now in Luxembourg, where he would remain with the Army of Occupation before sailing home in 1919.
His term in the military would run out in 1919, and Woodfill would re-enlist not long after; however, upon re-enlistment he would lose his rank of captain. There were local efforts later on to push Congress to allow for Woodfill to retire with a rank of sergeant but on a Captain’s pension. However, this would ultimately fail, since Woodfill had been given the opportunity to take the examination for captaincy but reportedly opted not to.
After arriving back at Fort Thomas, Ky., on Nov. 26, 1921, he would find it difficult to support his wife and make house payments on just a sergeant’s pay. Woodfill was determined to make ends meet.
In 1922, he received leave from the army to work on a dam project on the Ohio River at Silver Grove, Ky. At this work, he reportedly earned $6 a day, roughly double his sergeant’s pay, which helped him to make payments on his and Lorena’s home in Fort Thomas.
Upon seeing a picture of Woodfill working on the dam, the Keith Theatre Interests in New York City sought to help the war hero. They gave $10,000 to pay off the mortgage on his home as well as pay up some life insurance for Woodfill. The sergeant was overwhelmed and offered his humble and heartfelt gratitude to “those who made possible the freeing of our home from debt.”
In the years following the war, Woodfill would spend a great deal of time in the spotlight, though it was often said that this was not an experience that he very much enjoyed. Despite Woodfill’s aversion to publicity, his fame would soar as Pershing recognized him as one of the most outstanding soldiers of the war and chose him to represent the infantry as pallbearer for the burial of the Unknown Soldier on Nov. 11, 1921. In addition, Woodfill would be honored around the country, with newspapers praising his name across the United States. He received a standing ovation from the House of Representatives with a reception being held in his honor. He also met with President Warren G. Harding, who upon praising Woodfill as an outstanding soldier said, “When he shook hands with me he had the grip of a fighting man.”
Throughout these events, Woodfill’s humility was repeatedly noted, as well as his discomfort with his own celebrity. He expressed his frustration when being called to Washington once more later on, reportedly telling his wife that he was tired of “being a circus pony” and lamenting how “every time there is something going on they trot me out to perform.”
Regardless of his discomfort before crowds, Woodfill’s time in the spotlight would not end for years. Later on, he would meet and be photographed with President Calvin Coolidge, and locally Woodfill would receive even more honors in 1922 when a school at Fort Thomas was named in his honor.
Woodfill would be brought back into the public eye repeatedly throughout the years to come despite his wish for peace and quiet, saying, “I hope there won’t be any more written about Woodfill.”
In 1923, Woodfill would be discharged from the Army with full military honors and the rank of master sergeant. After a long and meritorious career in the military, Sgt. Woodfill would now have to navigate civilian life. Two years later after his discharge, Woodfill bought a farm of about 60 acres in Campbell County, Ky., reportedly with the hopes of making the land into a profitable orchard.
However, this would unfortunately be unsuccessful. To keep his farm and deal with his now accumulated $2,000 debt, he began working as a watchman, starting in 1929, and would continue in that profession until America’s entrance into World War II later on.
With the United States now embroiled in World War II, in 1942 at age 59, Woodfill was commissioned a major in the U.S. Army, serving as an instructor in Birmingham, Ala., training infantry during the war. The rationale for employing Woodfill in such a capacity was that having old heroes like Alvin York and Woodfill would help to boost morale within the ranks.
When Woodfill left for Alabama in 1942, it would be in mourning. His wife of almost 25 years, would on March 26, 1942, succumb to pneumonia at Christ Hospital in Cincin-nati. The now Maj. Woodfill would choose to sell his empty home in Kentucky and, after retiring from the army at age 60, moved back to Jefferson County, Ind., near where he had been born, and bought a small farm near Vevay.
Woodfill would live out the rest of his life in peace, quiet and relative obscurity. He finally had gotten the reprieve from the public that he had hoped for so many years ago. Woodfill lived alone at his home in Vevay for another eight years. On Aug. 13, 1951, he was found dead on his farm at age 68, reportedly having died of a heart attack several days prior.
He was initially buried at Hebron Cemetery in Jefferson County near Madison. Four years later, his body was moved to Washington, D.C., and buried in Arlington National Cemetery with honors, approximately 50 feet from Pershing’s grave. In addition, a memorial was erected in his honor at Springdale Cemetery in Madison.
Woodfill was deserving of the title of hero in every way. His brave and selfless actions during World Was I cemented his legacy as one of the war’s greatest soldiers and earned him almost unending recognition and praise from his countrymen. His determined focus on duty to his family and country, and his humility amid the praise and recognition heaped upon him served to further confirm that he was more than deserving of it. Without a doubt, Woodfill deserves his place in history as one of Indiana’s greatest war heroes and most celebrated sons. His courage and commitment as a soldier, humility as a celebrity, and sense of honor as a person ensure that he will be forever remembered as one of the greatest Hoosiers.
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