As a career Army enlisted man at the outbreak of WWI he received a temporary commission. He was gassed during the war, but elected to stay in Army until 1923 when eligible for a complete pension. However, the Army would only let him stay on if he accepted a reduction from First Lieutenant to Sergeant, which he did. He also served briefly as a Major in World War II.
The list of Northern Kentuckians who have fought in our nation's wars is long and distinguished. But the man claimed by most as the area's greatest soldier was not a Kentucky native. He was an adopted son from Indiana.
The soldier was Samuel Woodfill. Apart from his military career, however, success often eluded Woodfill. He was proclaimed as America's most outstanding soldier of World War I by no one less than General John Pershing. Woodfill also was selected as part of the honor guard at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C
A Good Shot
He was born in Jefferson County, Indiana, in January 1883. Accounts say his father, John H. Woodfill, was a veteran of the Mexican War and had served with the 5th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. Woodfill reportedly became a good shot by age 10 and often sneaked off to go hunting. He enlisted in the Army in 1901 and was sent to the Philippines. The United States had won control of the Philippines from Spain during the Spanish-American War. Before that war, some natives of the Philippines were already waging guerrilla warfare against the Spanish.
Later, Woodfill was stationed in Alaska during an American show of force when the US was involved in a border dispute with Canada and England over the Alaska-Yukon area. Woodfill apparently was stationed first in Fort Thomas, KY, in 1912, and 2 years later was among troops from Fort Thomas sent to the Mexican border in an attempt to protect Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from attacks by Mexican bandits. Back in Fort Thomas, Woodfill met and on Christmas Day 1917 married Lorena Wiltshire.
A Descendent of Daniel Boone
An account in 1942 said Mrs. Woodfill was a direct descendent of Daniel Boone. The year he married, Woodfill was promoted to Lieutenant. That was the rank he held in April 1918 when he and others at Fort Thomas were dispatched to Europe. They were part of the American Expeditionary Force headed by General Pershing to fight in World War I.
Woodfill was a member of the Army's 60th Infantry, Fifth Division, which was sent to the Meuse-Argonne front in France in the fall of 1918. The battle there began in September and lasted 45 days, costing thousands of lives on both sides.
Woodfill earned his place in American military history on the morning of October 12, 1918, near Cunel, France. While Woodfill and his men were attempting to move through a thick fog, German artillery and machine gun fire pinned them down. Followed by two of his men, Woodfill went about 25 yards ahead toward a German-held machine gun emplacement. Leaving his two men where they were, Woodfill moved alone, working his way around the end of the machine gun emplacement.
The machine gun was firing, but Woodfill was not hit. When he was within about 10 yards of the Germans, the gun stopped firing and Woodfill could see three German soldiers. Woodfill shot all three. A fourth German in the gun pit - an officer - rushed Woodfill. In a hand-to-hand struggle, Woodfill killed the officer. Woodfill then ordered the rest of his patrol ahead, but they soon encountered another machine gun.
Ordering a Charge
Woodfill ordered a charge, shooting several of the Germans, capturing three others alive and silencing the machine gun. A few minutes later Woodfill and his men discovered another machine gun emplacement. Again Woodfill charged the emplacement, shooting and killing five German soldiers with rifle fire. He then drew his pistol and jumped into the machine gun pit. Unable to kill the enemy with his pistol, Woodfill grabbed a pick that was in the pit and clubbed the two German soldiers to death. Exhausted and suffering from the effects of exposure to mustard gas - a chemical explosive shot by German artillery -Woodfill safely made it back to American lines. He was hospitalized at Bordeaux and saw no further action during the war.
For his courage in that one morning of service, Woodfill received the Medal of Honor - American's greatest military honor-in ceremonies at Chaumont, France, on February 9, 1919. General Pershing presented the medal to Woodfill. The French government decorated him with the Croix de Guerre with palm and made him a Chevalier of the 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. Woodfill
Woodfill's term in the military apparently ran out that year because a Kentucky Post account on December 16, 1919, said Woodfill had reenlisted. But he apparently lost his rank in the reenlistment. A later account said Woodfill retired in 1923 with the rank of Sergeant. There was a local movement, apparently unsuccessful, to get the Congress to pass a special act allowing Woodfill to retire as a Sergeant, but with a Captain's pension. In 1921 Woodfill was selected as one of three World War I veterans to represent the Army in ceremonies dedicating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.
Promoted to Major
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 Army teacher and instructor in Birmingham, Alabama.
Woodfill was found dead at his Indiana farm on August 13, 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 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.
Note: This article was adapted from www.arlingtoncemetery.net
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