A Most Remarkable Life

World War I’s most decorated soldier
hailed from Vevay, Ind.

Maj. Samuel Woodfill became a war hero, legend

Editor’s Note: This article on Maj. Samuel Woodfill, the most decorated soldier of World War I, is presented to pay tribute to Veteran’s Day on Nov. 11 and to mark this year’s 100th anniversary of World War I.

November 2014
Edition Cover

(November 2014) – On Oct. 11, 1918, 1st Lt. Samuel Woodfill was laying on his back in a trench in Europe. He and his company were spending the night listening to frequent machine gun fire from the enemy. Only a hill stood between the Americans and a group of Germans. Cunel, France, was far from all he knew and held dear. He could not stop his thoughts from turning to his wife, Blossom. Throughout his deployment in World War I, Woodfill had carried a picture of her wearing her wedding dress. He now fumbled in his pockets for the photo as well as a small fragment of pencil. Expecting to die the next morning, Woodfill turned the photo over and wrote, “I will prepare a place and be waiting at the Golden Gate of Heaven for the arrival of my darling Blossom.”

Maj. Samuel Woodfill Chronology

Jan. 6, 1883: Born in Bryantsburg, Ind., near Vevay. He was the son of John H. Woodfill, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and Civil War.
1901: Enlisted in the U.S. Army. Sent to Philippines.
1910: Sent to Alaska during a border dispute with Canada and England in the Alaska-Yukon area.
1912: Stationed in Ft. Thomas, Ky. Sent to Mexican border to protect southwestern states while Mexico was in civil war.
Dec. 25, 1917: Married Lorena "Blossom" Wiltshire.
1917: Promoted to lieutenant.
1918: Sent to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Force headed by Gen. John J. Pershing in World War I.
1918: Part of U.S. Army's 60th Infantry, Fifth Division. Sent to Meuse-Argonne front in France.
Feb. 9, 1919: Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor at Chaumont, France, by Gen. Pershing. Promoted to captain.
1920: Re-enlisted and lost rank.
1921: One of three soldiers selected to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.
1923: Retired with rank of sergeant.
1942: Commissioned U.S. Army Major as part of a campaign to boost national spirit and enlistments. He was an Army teacher and instructor in Birmingham during World War II.
1944: Resigned from the Army and moved to Vevay, Ind.
Aug. 10, 1951: Died and buried in Jefferson County, Ind., cemetery but in 1955 was moved to a grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

What followed was one of the most impressive displays of bravery and cunning to be seen on that battlefield.
Having been given the order to “conduct a combat reconnaissance” in the nearby village, Woodfill knew where he and his company needed to be. Unfortunately, two German snipers and three machine gun encampments stood between his men and their destination.
Knowing that all he could do was give it his best effort, Woodfill emerged from cover and began to run toward the first sniper who was perched in a church tower. He zig-zagged to avoid being hit by the bullets that tore up the ground around him. He stumbled and fell intentionally to give the appearance that he had been hit.
Waiting until the sniper’s attention was elsewhere, Woodfill rolled to his knees and quickly took cover in a large shell hole. He then aimed his single action rifle and eliminated that particular threat to him and his men. Using similar methods, Woodfill was able to overcome another sniper in a hay loft. Three machine gun nests remained.
Growing up on his father’s homestead in eastern Jefferson County, Ind., on the Indian-Kentuck Creek, Woodfill could shoot a muzzleloader at age 6. By age 10, he was considered an excellent shot. Understanding the effect that deep breathing had on his aim, Woodfill did his best to keep his cool.  He and his men continued their charge towards their objective.
Again and again, Woodfill displayed excellent marksmanship by killing a number of the enemy who had emerged from their encampment when they saw him drawing near as well as some who remained in the gun emplacements. He was able to overpower a much larger German officer in hand-to-hand combat, and took three prisoners. When he was unable to hit two enemy soldiers with his pistol, he quickly grabbed a pick and subdued them with blows to their heads.
In the end, all three machine gun nests had been dismantled, and the group was able to proceed to American lines. This incredible feat was carried out while Woodfill was suffering from the effects of mustard gas. Apparently, he had removed his gas mask because it impaired his shooting ability.

“Sam Woodfill remained a military man until the day he died.”
– Relative Robert Woodfill

Woodfill would later tell troops headed to World War II about that day. He attributed his survival to luck and spoke specifically about the German officer who engaged him in hand-to-hand combat. According to Woodfill’s descendant, Dr. Robert Woodfill of East Enterprise, Ind., Samuel was not a large man. He stood 5-foot-11 and weighed about 165 pounds.
In his speech, he refers to a German officer that was much larger than himself. After overcoming that soldier with a shot made during the struggle, Samuel removed a Luger automatic pistol from the fallen soldier’s belt and placed it in his own, thinking he may soon need it. Later, Samuel would attempt to fire that gun.
“The gun snapped,” Samuel reported. He attempted another shot with another cartridge with the same results. The snapping that Samuel described would indicate a malfunctioning firing pin.
He believed that had the German’s gun been operating correctly, he would have shot him before Samuel had the opportunity to defend himself. This sort of humble behavior was a noted characteristic of Samuel’s personality.

U.S. Army Maj. Samuel Woodfill is pictured with President Calvin Coolidge and three other highly decorated soldiers from World War I. The three soldiers were selected from 3,000 nominations to take part in the dedication of the Tomb of the Unmown Soldier in 1921 in Washington, D.C. A committee narrowed it down to 100 soldiers, and Gen. John J. Pershing selected the final three.

Robert Woodfill, 71, recalls reading the letter in which Samuel told his mother that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. He made the statement, then he inquired after the family’s crop.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Samuel would receive the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for heroic deeds in combat, and Italy’s Meriot di Guerra, and the Cross of Prince Danilo, First Class. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing, who would later proclaim Samuel to be “the most outstanding soldier of World War I.”
This was not an idle statement. Samuel was in fact the most decorated soldier to emerge from the war and the only recipient of the Medal of Honor from Jefferson County, Ind., to this day.
Samuel would go on to be chosen to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., in 1921. He shared this privilege with two other Medal of Honor recipients – one of which was the famous Alvin York. A school in Fort Thomas, Ky., where Samuel and his wife lived, and a meeting room at the Indiana War Memorial have been named for him.
Despite all of the attention and honors that were bestowed upon Samuel, he and his wife lived a quiet and modest life after the war. It is reported that Samuel and Blossom shared a deep love for one another. The pair was opposites in many ways. She was talkative, and he was not. He was from a simple, country background, whereas she was from a prominent family in Cincinnati.

In an undated photo, Maj. Samuel Woodfill poses with his wife, Blossom.

Blossom died in 1942. According to Robert Woodfill, Samuel was “lost.” He spent the last eight years of his life in Vevay, where he had purchased a large home. He lived in the home and rented extra rooms out. Robert says that this conflicts with the common thought that Samuel died on a farm. “In the end, he had given up on farming.”
Robert remembers Samuel coming to his home for dinner with the family. They were distantly related. “I think we shared a great-great-grandfather.”

Maj. Samuel Woodfill (back row middle) is pictured with his platoon
of soldiers during World War I.

Robert, then 7 years old, remembers being in awe of the older gentleman. “He walked very straight and had to be engaged in conversation. He wouldn’t start talking to you,” he recalls. He added that Samuel remained “a military man” until the day he died. Samuel wore his uniform to Gen. Pershing’s funeral in 1948. No alterations were needed. Samuel had kept himself in shape. At the time of his death on Aug. 10, 1951, Samuel was buried in a cemetery in Jefferson County. Ind. Congressman Earl Wilson endeavored in 1955 to have his body moved to Arlington National Cemetery. His grave marker can be located at Section 34 Site 642-A.
Robert Woodfill, who has made a career in geology and now as a gunsmith, has recently published a book about his famous ancestor titled, “Sam Woodfill’s Guns.” The book tells of his famous relative’s military life from personal letters, including those written to his wife, Blossom.
The author spoke to a group of about 30 guests in August at the Jefferson County Historical Society in Madison. He wants to help both Madison and Vevay preserve the legacy of Samuel Woodfill. Both cities have monuments in his honor, and one of his actual guns is on display at the Jefferson County Historical Society.
The historical society also has a book available for sale in its gift shop on the major by local historian Ben Newell titled, “Maj. Samuel Woodfill: The Greatest Soldier of World War I.”

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