I love serendipity when it occurs. It happened for me yesterday, as a happy, unexpected consequence of the current need to stay at home.
It happened during a phone call with my mom. I had called to check in with her, and casually mentioned I was doing some research on WWI. She perked up and asked, “Well, did you know you have a relative who was awarded the Medal of Honor during WWI?” It was a family story she had forgotten about, until her local “stay at home” order had her spending more time sorting through boxes of old papers and documents. The other day, she found an article about her mother’s cousin, Samuel Woodfill.
Samuel Woodfill was the most decorated soldier in WWI. General Pershing called him the “greatest single hero” of the war. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre as well as their Legion d’Honneur, Italy’s Meriot di Guerra, and the Order of Leopold from Belgium. He was so well-respected that two years after the war ended, Poland presented him with two more medals.
Samuel grew up on a farm in southern Indiana and became an excellent woodsman and marksman, skills which served him well later in life. He was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army. He tried to enlist during the Spanish American War, but was turned away because he was only 15 years old. Samuel was finally able to enlist in 1901 when he was 18. He served in a variety of locations, including the Philippines, Alaska and the border with Mexico before WWI.
However, it was his service in France which cemented his place in the history books. On October 12, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, he single-handedly captured three German machine gun nests, using his rifle and then his pistol, and then a pick axe to eliminate many enemy soldiers. By this point, he was also suffering from the mustard gas he breathed in during the fighting. He spent ten weeks in a hospital recovering. (According to lore, he first retrieved the pack he had abandoned when the fighting started, and was upset to discover that some “yellow-bellied son of a sea cook” had stolen a jar of strawberry jam out of his pack.) Samuel retired from the Army with a small pension in 1923.
Although Samuel was a modest man and tried to live quietly, he was not forgotten. In 1921, General Pershing selected him to be one of the Body Bearers for the Unknown Soldier when the soldier was entombed. When the U.S. entered WWII, Samuel (along with Alvin York, another Medal of Honor winner) was asked to serve again. Although Samuel was 59 at this point, he was still an excellent marksman and served as an instructor. He died in 1951 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery near General Pershing.
It is hard to describe how I felt when I heard about this amazing relative. The more I learn about my own family’s participation in WWI, the more connected I feel to the story I am working on now. I am so glad I happened to call my mother when I did. It is humbling to read what men like Samuel endured, and I feel honored to share their story and to hold them up as the heroes they were.
I write historical fiction, and I invite you to share the journey to published author with me.