How this World War I soldier earned the Medal of Honor in a mustard gas attack
There are few higher compliments for a soldier than when the General of the Armies calls him the most outstanding soldier who fought in an entire war – and the war to end all wars, no less. But Samuel Woodfill wasn't just a veteran of World War I, he was also in the Philippines and on the Mexican border. He was even around to train U.S. troops to fight in World War II.
But to earn his status as America's one-man Army, he had to go through hell.
Woodfill was a career military man, spending time fighting Filipino warriors and then guarding Alaska and the Mexican border areas before shipping out to fight in World War I. Though enlisting as a private, Woodfill's skill and experience earned him a commission before he shipped out to the Great War. The American Expeditionary force needed good officers to fill its ranks as they settled into a defensive position between the Meuse and the Argonne areas of France.
In September 1918, just one month after arriving in France, their defensive position became an offensive move toward the German lines. Woodfill and his company were near the town of Cunel, advancing on the Germans through a thick fog as carefully as possible, when the telltale crackle of machine-gun fire ripped through the fog toward Woodfill and his men.
Woodfill's men threw themselves away from the fire to take cover, but Woodfill himself rushed toward the machine gun. He jumped in the trench and took down three German soldiers manning the gun. That's when their officer starting lunging toward him. He made short work of their officer just as another machine gun opened up on him. He ordered his men to come out of hiding and attack the latest machine gun, which they did, making short work of it just in time for a third gun to open up on the Americans.
Woodfill joined his men in a charge on the third gun position. He was the first to get to the machine-gun nest and, having fired all the shots in his pistol, was forced to fight both Germans at the gun at the same time. In the middle of the fighting, he searched desperately for any kind of equalizer – which he found in the form of a pickax. Meanwhile, the fog that had been growing thicker and thicker turned out to be growing thick with Mustard Gas. The Americans hightailed it out of the gas area.
The American company was knocked out of the war by the effects of the Mustard Gas and Woodfill would deal with its effects for the rest of his life. But his heroics and daring in the Meuse-Argonne earned him the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him in France by Gen. John J. Pershing himself. Later, Woodfill would have the honor of carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier to its final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside fellow Army legends and Medal of Honor recipients Charles Whittlesey and Alvin York.
Woodfill would stay in the Army until 1943, having stayed on long enough to train recruits to fight the Nazis in World War II.
Feature image: National Archives