Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Meet Samuel Woodfill: Common Man, Uncommon Soldier


Samuel Woodfill displays his Medal of Honor. 
A farm boy is not going to waste a shot when hunting. And that’s a lesson Samuel Woodfill learned at an early age on the family farm not far from Madison, Indiana. He did not have much formal education, but don’t be fooled by that. He was bright, observant, patient, calm under pressure, and knew his way around the woods. He was eager to join the military to perhaps follow in his father’s footsteps, a veteran himself.

After he joined the military Woodfill was stationed in the Philippines and Alaska before being stationed at Fort Thomas, where he met Lorena Wiltshire, who people said was a descendant of Daniel Boone. They married on Christmas Day of 1917 and called 1334 Alexandria Pike home. They had no children.

This is an advertisement. 
In the final months of WWI, Woodfill, under General Pershing’s command was now a first  lieutenant and in charge of a machine gun company, engaged in battle in France. The epic Battle of the Argonne Forest began on September 26, 1918 and lasted 47 days. It was the largest and bloodiest battle in US military history to date involving over a million US soldiers. The loss of life was extraordinary; the US lost over 26,000 soldiers while the Germans lost 28,000 soldiers in this extended battle alone. That would be like losing the entire population of Fort Thomas three and a half times in seven weeks.

But let’s stop the story here for a minute. Soldiers at the time were not trained in marksmanship. In fact, many soldiers did not even fire a weapon until they engaged in combat. So when a cool headed farm boy accustomed to being the patient hunter entered a combat situation, his prowess was revealed. And eventually honored.


On October 12, near Cunel, France, US forces were pinned down by German machine fire. in a dense fog, Woodfill and two men swept out to advance on German positions.  He calmly noted the direction of the enemy gunfire, scouted, and stalked his way toward the first of several machine gun nests. Stories vary a bit but this much is clear, Woodfill left his men and advanced to within 25 yards of the enemy. He saw three Germans and with three expert shots, killed them. A fourth German charged Woodfill and died in hand to hand combat. Woodfill and his patrol then advanced on a several more positions and repeated the same procedure. It was precise and deadly.

There was more hand to hand combat. Even though he and his patrol captured a handful of German soldiers, Woodfill was exhausted and he was beginning to suffer from the mustard gas that German artillery fired at them. He was eventually hospitalized at Bordeaux and saw no further action during the war. But his heroic action did not go unnoticed. He demonstrated remarkable leadership, skill, and courage that saved the lives of many soldiers.

Woodfill was essentially a sniper before the military really understood the power of excellent marksmanship. His actions demonstrated the need for proper and skillful rifle skills which is standard today.

In a ceremony in Chaumont, France on February 9, 1919, General Pershing awarded Samuel Woodfill with the Medal of Honor, our country's highest military honor. But the honors were just beginning. The French government awarded him with the Croix de Guerre with palm and made him a Chevalier of their Legion of Honor. The Italian government presented Woodfill with its Meriot di Guerra, and the government of Montenegro honored Woodfill with its Cross of Prince Danilo, First Class. Lastly, Samuel  Woodfill was promoted to the rank of Captain. General John Pershing said Woodfill was the most outstanding soldier of WWI and tapped him to be part of the Honor Guard for the dedication ceremony of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.  On a local level, Woodfill was a  pallbearer at the funeral of Robert D. Johnson, the war hero for whom Johnson Elementary School is named. Woodfill was an exemplary soldier and by all accounts a fine man. He was a national hero and lavishly treated like one upon his return to the US.

Even though Samuel Woodfill retired from the Army in 1923 after decades of service, he only drew a pension of $138 per month. Eventually he returned to service in 1942 to serve two more years as a trainer in WWII.

His wartime exploits, though, have a distinct Hollywood feel to them - a lanky, unassuming farm boy uses his natural wit and skill to conquer a powerful enemy.  Woodfill was courted to run for public office and he seemed to have flirted with the idea, but eventually he withdrew from that. It was widely reported that his wife Lorena recalled Woodfill saying that, "I'm tired of being a circus pony. Every time there is something doing they trot me out to perform.” He struggled to make financial ends meet. At various times he worked as carpenter for $6.00 a day and as a watchman at the Andrews Steel Plant in Newport.  Such was the life of a war hero.

But Samuel Woodfill remained popular in Fort Thomas. Mrs. Woodfill donated a large portrait of her husband to Woodfill Elementary School for the opening of the school (which is now demolished) in 1922 with the understanding that it would hang along with some of his war decorations and a short biography.
Woodfill home on Alexandria Pike.

The pull of his boyhood farm life must have been strong. He bought 60 acres in Campbell County and was unsuccessful in his attempts to grow an orchard. His wife died in 1942 and he never set foot in Fort Thomas again. He retired to a small farm near Vevay, Indiana where he lived quietly until he died alone of natural causes in1951.

Samuel Woodfill was buried in a cemetery near his birthplace near Madison, Indiana. Determined to provide a dignified burial deserving his stature as a war hero, Indiana Congressman, Earl Wilson, spearheaded the effort to move Woodfill’s remains for burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 1955.

As we head into our Sesquicentennial, we need to remember and celebrate those who brought honor to Fort Thomas. Ernest Hemingway described courage as “grace under pressure” and that certainly describes Samuel Woodfill. There's a saying "We live life forward but understand it by looking backwards." In that case, then, Samuel Woodfill is a great example of how to live a noble life - live simply, be true to yourself, rise to the occasion, and serve others.  That's a hero.

Woodfill's headstone in Arlington.

1 comment: