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. The guerrillas supported the American troops, assuming the United States would grant them independence. The US won but did not grant the islands independence. That led to a prolonged guerrilla war against the U.S.
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 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. At the time Mexico was involved in a civil war. The troops, including Woodfill, eventually returned to Fort Thomas. While back in Fort Thomas, Woodfill met and on Christmas Day 1917 married Lorena Wiltshire.
An account in 1942 said Mrs. Woodfill was a direct descendent of Daniel Boone. The Woodfills later owned a house at 1334 Alexandria Pike in Fort Thomas. 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.
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 also was promoted to the rank of Captain.
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. 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.
We honor you, Samuel Woodfill.