The Greatest Single Hero

Conflict: World War I

Samuel Woodfill (fourth from left) and others receive the Medal of Honor from General Pershing, 1919

Samuel Woodfill (fourth from left) and others receive the Medal of Honor from General Pershing, 1919

Deemed by General Pershing as the “greatest single hero in the American forces” of World War I, Samuel Woodfill—a shy, modest man—would probably never have achieved national fame if granted his own wishes. As one reporter recounted, “It was evident that he would rather face German machine guns than newspapermen.” Woodfill himself remarked to his wife regarding his fame, “I’m tired of being a circus pony.”

But who was this quiet man and what did he do to garner such acclaim?

Samuel Woodfill was born in 1883 to a poor family in rural Indiana. As a child, he became an excellent shot with a rifle and then, when he turned 18, decided to join the army. He was stationed in the Philippines, Alaska, and along the Mexican border, and by the time America joined World War I, Woodfill had been serving in the army for 16 years.

Samuel Woodfill, 1922

Samuel Woodfill, 1922

Woodfill and his company arrived in France in spring 1918 and by autumn were part of the Argonne offensive. On 12 October, Woodfill’s company was ordered to try to break through the German line in a wooded area outside the town of Cunel. When the fog the Americans had been using for cover lifted, the Germans began firing at them with machine guns and shells. Woodfill’s Medal of Honor citation documents what happened next:

Followed by 2 soldiers at 25 yards, this officer [Woodfill] went out ahead of his first line toward a machinegun nest and worked his way around its flank, leaving the 2 soldiers in front. When he got within 10 yards of the gun it ceased firing, and 4 of the enemy appeared, 3 of whom were shot by 1st Lt. Woodfill. The fourth, an officer, rushed at 1st Lt. Woodfill, who attempted to club the officer with his rifle. After a hand-to-hand struggle, 1st Lt. Woodfill killed the officer with his pistol. His company thereupon continued to advance, until shortly afterwards another machinegun nest was encountered. Calling on his men to follow, 1st Lt. Woodfill rushed ahead of his line in the face of heavy fire from the nest, and when several of the enemy appeared above the nest he shot them, capturing 3 other members of the crew and silencing the gun. A few minutes later this officer for the third time demonstrated conspicuous daring by charging another machinegun position, killing 5 men in one machinegun pit with his rifle. He then drew his revolver and started to jump into the pit, when 2 other gunners only a few yards away turned their gun on him. Failing to kill them with his revolver, he grabbed a pick lying nearby and killed both of them. Inspired by the exceptional courage displayed by this officer, his men pressed on to their objective under severe shell and machinegun fire.

After these acts of bravery, Woodfill was hospitalized for the mustard gas he had encountered while performing them. By the time he was released, the war was over. Despite being awarded the Medal of Honor as well as medals from the French and Italian governments, Woodfill probably would’ve happily remained in obscurity if Pershing hadn’t selected him to be one of the pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier in 1921. The resulting media attention made Woodfill uncomfortable but cemented his place as one of the most famous World War I soldiers.

Newspaper headline from November 1921

Newspaper headline from November 1921

Read more about Woodfill here or here. You can also find contemporary articles about him in Fold3’s Newspapers collection.