Remembering Maj. Sam Woodfill
Letters help Bob Woodfill tell more of his relative's story
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 11:00 AM
As a young boy growing up in Vevay, Bob Woodfill remembers his relative Sam Woodfill visiting the family on holidays and coming over for dinner.
Bob Woodfill speaks about his relative, Maj. Sam Woodfill, the most decorated American soldier of World War I. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchieemail@example.com)
Sam was a serious man, respectful, rather quiet and immensely humble about his prodigious military career.
"When he lived there, I was a little boy," Bob said, remembering his 7-year-old self. "I was just a little boy, and here's this famous soldier coming to dinner, and it just fascinated me."
Bob had good reason to be impressed with Sam, or Maj. Sam Woodfill as he's better known. Sam - born in Byrantsburg, in Jefferson County in 1883 - was the most decorated soldier in WWI and is the only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from Jefferson County. He received the honor after his valor and history-making efforts on the frontlines in France during the war.
Bob Woodfill has lived all across the country, having made a career in geology and now as a gunsmith.
Over the past two years, Bob has worked on a book about his relative called, "Sam Woodfill's Guns," which is available at the Jefferson County Historical Society. The book chronicles the life of Sam, from his birth to his death, and highlights his courageous acts on the battlefield.
"What's so important to me is that this is the anniversary (of World War I)," Bob said.
Bob gave a presentation to a group of about 30 visitors at the Jefferson County Historical Society on Thursday evening. At the event, he presented three gun models that would have been used by Sam throughout his life, including during WWI.
For the project, Bob found the great-granddaughter of Sam's brother, who now lives in Bloomington. She allowed Bob to search through her family collectibles for information about Sam. To his delight and surprise, she had more than 300 pictures of Sam and 200 of Sam's personal letters.
The letters span from 1914 to the 1940s and are mostly between Sam and his mother and Sam and his wife, Blossom. The pile, of course, includes correspondence from Sam while he was fighting in the war.
Sam's tone and language in the letters show the soldier's humble and modest side, Bob said. In one letter to his mother, he briefly mentions being awarded the Medal of Honor, and then shifts immediately to asking about the family's tobacco and corn crop.
"They're lovely," Bob said of the letters. "He's just so humble and so matter-of-fact."
Volunteers at the Jefferson County Historical Society scanned the letters and they are available at the center.
"So, we've got a wealth of new information that never has been seen, available through the society. ... I keep saying, we've got two master's thesis here people can work on," Bob said.
Sam Woodfill was a career soldier, having enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1901. He served in the Philippines and then Alaska before the outbreak of World War I.
During WW I, he was a member of the Army's 60th Infantry, Fifth Division, which was sent to France. Sam's incredible act of valor came on Oct. 12, 1918, when he single-handedly eliminated several German machine nests and found himself face-to-face with enemy soldiers.
On that day, the battlefield - a small town - was cluttered with enemy soldiers. The American troops were pinned down in the woods by heavy machine gun fire. Bob said the only possible scenario was to remove the machine-gun threat.
Sam said, "I won't ask my men to do anything I wouldn't do" before taking the lead in attacking the machine-gun nests. He carried a standard-issued bolt-action rifle which could hold a clip of five bullets. He had 10 clips - or 50 bullets to work with.
"So, he took off his rucksack, took his rifle and cartridge belt and he advanced forward," Bob said.
The Army's account says that Sam moved alone to a machine gun emplacement after his men were pinned down by enemy fire. He first killed two German snipers - one at 300 yards out and another at 250 yards.
Then, 10 yards from the first emplacement, Sam shot and killed three German soldiers with a bolt-action rifle and killed another in hand-to-hand combat.
Sam then ordered a charge, shooting several more enemy soldiers in machine-gun nests - at one point killing five Germans in one location with his rifle.
Once through the machine gun fire, Sam jumped into an enemy trench and clubbed two Germans to death with a pickax.
The events all took place while Sam was under the effects of mustard gas - he didn't use a gas mask because he would not have been able to see his targets. He also was hit with shrapnel during the attack.
Sam killed about 20 German soldiers and then captured three. But true to his form, Sam never bragged about his actions. He also said he held no ill will toward the German soldiers, Bob said.
"When he gets back his buddies ask him what happened up there, and Sam's comment is, 'I got a few of them,'" Bob said.
For his action, Sam received the Medal of Honor. It was presented by Gen. John J. Pershing, whom he later joined to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sam later helped train troops during World War II. He died of a heart attack in Vevay in 1951. He was buried in Jefferson County but his body was moved to Arlington Cemetery in 1955.
Sam Woodfill was the most decorated soldier in World War I, even more than fellow Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York who was later depicted in films.
After the war, Sam, too, was a national hero. Congress invited him to Washington D.C., and held a ticker-tape parade. The stock market also was shut down for three minutes in his honor.
In 1929, Sam was presented with a book deal by Lowell Thomas, the man who told the story of Lawrence of Arabia.
The idea was to raise money for the financially struggling soldier, who at that time, was back home struggling to pay his bills. The book, which didn't actually earn Sam much money, is now hard to find - there is a copy at the Jefferson County Public Library Madison branch - partly because it includes ethnic slurs and was not widely circulated.
The other issue is that the book is not the most accurate depiction of Sam, Bob said. Thomas added a few characteristics and storylines in the book that never happened.
"It was an adventure book," Bob said, with an emphasis on the word "adventure."
Thomas describes Sam as a hillbilly with a subpar vocabulary. That wasn't Sam, Bob said. Yes, the soldier only went to school until the third grade. And yes, he crafted his skills running in the woods in his tiny Midwest hometown.
But Sam was articulate, collected, spoke with an excellent vocabulary and had beautifully disciplined handwriting, Bob said.
In fact, in his book, Bob shows a letter penned by Sam to his wife. Sam wrote the letter while trapped in a foxhole and under the impression he wouldn't survive the night. The letter was a farewell to his wife, and it was written with a steady hand and perfect English.
"He wrote the book depicting Sam Woodfill as a hillbilly," he said. "Sam Woodfill was not a hillbilly."
With years of Sam's life now at his fingertips, Bob said his goal is to help the Jefferson County Historical Society tell the story of his relative. Madison and Vevay both have monuments in recognition of Sam, and one of his actual guns is on display at the historical society.
Beyond the acts of valor, Bob wants to tell the story about Sam's life. That includes: The man who earned the Medal of Honor. The man who penned such heartfelt letters to his family. And the small boy who learned to shoot in Jefferson County.
"What makes him so special is that he is us. He's just like your neighborhood boy who goes out with his BB gun and goes squirrel hunting. This guy was as common as all get-out," Bob said. "I think that's the untold story."