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Kentucky by Heart: WWI veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Samual Woodfill had strong ties to NKY

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Growing up, I recall passing by Woodfill Elementary School on Alexandria Pike, in Ft. Thomas a thousand times, all the time wondering from where the name “Woodfill” came.

Now I know, and from all I can gather, it was a most worthy decision. That’s because the name refers to a hero, Samuel Woodfill, a distinguished World War I veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. And though he was born in Indiana, he lived much of his adult life in Campbell County, and the Woodfill School sets only a few blocks from the place where he once lived in Ft. Thomas.

Samuel Woodfill (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Woodfill was born on January 6, 1883, growing up in a rural area and watching his father and his older brothers hunt for game. Too young to go with them, ten-year-old Samuel started sneaking out of the house with a gun to shoot small game. Ironically, his actions impressed his father, who added his blessings to Samuel to let him hunt whenever he wanted.

Gung ho to fight for his country as he grew older, he attempted to get in the Army at age 15 to fight in the Spanish-American War but was turned down. In 1901, at age 18, the Army accepted him. He was stationed in the Philippines until 1904, then moved his service to Alaska, not then a full-fledged state in the U.S. While there, he had the opportunity to hunt large game in the untamed wilderness and also to improve his marksmanship skills.

After his time in Alaska, Woodfill’s Northern Kentucky connection began. He served two years in Ft. Thomas before he was assigned to be a part of the American force that guarded the Mexican American border. It was back to Ft. Thomas in 1917, and he was promoted to second lieutenant. He married Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire, and the couple bought a house in Ft. Thomas. However, he would soon be sent to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. As the Meuse-Argonne six-week battle unfolded in France, Woodfill was promoted to first lieutenant. He also would see plenty of combat action.

Outside the town of Cunel with the 60th Infantry, Woodfill, according to defense.gov, “went on a sharpshooting tear that is comparable to the exploits of his fellow war hero, the famed Army Sgt. Alvin York.”

Samuel Woodfill’s grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery)

Those actions happened something like this. On October 12, 1918, his Company M came under heavy attack. As leader of his unit, Woodfill ordered most to hold back. He and two other soldiers went looking to find and destroy enemy machine gun nests.

Coming upon a flash of gunfire in a church tower some 300 yards away, he fired at what he only thought might be the gunner’s head—and took him out. He reportedly repeated the attack on the tower four more times. All told, Woodfill had five shots in his rifle, and all hit their targets. Additionally, his Medal of Honor citation states that another enemy soldier charged him and was killed by Woodfill in a hand-to-hand fight.

But for Woodfill, it was only a start. He destroyed a machine gun nest at a stable, and then came in range of a third gun nest. Here is the account from defense.gov:

At first, he took cover in a shell hole, but he got hit with the remains of mustard gas that lingered there, so he made his way to a ditch about 40 yards from the enemy gun, according to the Fort Polk Museum curator. He took out another gunner and the four replacements with his rifle before using his pistol to kill two more men.

There is more; Woodfill’s battlefield exploits read like a war movie, almost too hard to believe though documented. Here is a summary of his actions:

• after taking down the third gun nest, he shot a sniper in a tree, then called on two of his men to rush a fourth gun nest. Woodfill killed three of the crew and took three prisoners.

• within a few minutes, Woodfill charged another gun nest, the fifth, and killed five men before he jumped into a pit for cover.

• incredibly, when two enemy soldiers attacked him and he not being able to shoot, grabbed a pickaxe nearby and killed the men.

• with those actions principally by Woodfill, Company M was able to achieve its military objective.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

During his heroic actions, Woodfill was stricken with the debilitating effects of mustard gas. He was evacuated from the battlefield and spent ten weeks recovering in a hospital. Soon, he would be recognized by iconic Army General John Pershing, who presented Woodfill with the Medal of Honor on February 9, 1919. Additionally, he was also promoted to captain.

Sadly, things didn’t go well after he left the Army in November 1919. He wasn’t prepared, he found, to come back to civilian life and so he rejoined the Army three weeks later. There was a catch, however. Woodfill had to enter again as a sergeant, losing the captain’s rank he’d attained. Though it didn’t seem to matter to Woodfill, there were efforts by some to appeal that measure, though not successful.

Recognition for Samuel Woodfill continued. At Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on November 11, 1921. Woodfill was one of eight highly decorated WW I veterans, picked by Pershing, to escort the soldier to the burial grounds.

In 1923, Woodfill again retired from the Army with a pension, but it was during the infamous Great Depression, and he and his wife struggled as so many others did. Northern Kentuckians might be interested to know that he tried operating an apple and peach farm between Silver Grove and Flagg Springs, in Campbell County. He also worked as a watchman at the Andrews Steel Mill before World War II began.

His wife died, and as if military service would always be a part of his life, Woodfill again was recalled to service in World War II, albeit as one working with recruitment and promoting the sale of war bonds. After the service ended (reaching mandatory retirement age of 60), he moved back to his native Indiana to a farm near the community of Vejay. Unfortunately, he was found dead there at age 68 on August 13, 1951, though it’s estimated he died on August 10. After first being buried in Madison, Indiana, his body was later reinterred at Arlington Cemetery, near General Pershing’s grave site.

Kentucky proudly claims Woodfill as, at least, partly one of our own, and he carries on the tradition of valor in military service that so many in the state have exhibited.

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