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Exclusive–Patrick K. O’Donnell on Pershing’s One-Man Army: Samuel Woodfill, Body Bearer of the Unknown Soldier

Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, fire a 37mm gun against German entrenched positions during the World War I Meuse-Argonne (Maas-Argonne) Allied offensive in France on September 26, 1918. (Wikimedia Commons, National Archives)
Wikimedia Commons, National Archives

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of some of America’s greatest World War I battles. And one of the most epic stories from those battles belongs to the man General Pershing called “the outstanding soldier of the AEF”: Samuel Woodfill.

In the narrow, muddy confines of a trench near Cunel, France, Indiana native Samuel Woodfill searched frantically for a weapon while embroiled in a desperate hand-to-hand melee. With no room to maneuver his rifle, Woodfill had attempted to fire his pistol at the German soldier lunging towards him, but the unreliable weapon had jammed. Luckily for the American, someone had left a pickaxe within arm’s reach. He snatched the tool just in time, raised it over his head, and brought it crashing down onto the enemy soldier in front of him.

The story of Woodfill’s dramatic fight is recounted in my new book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. Slated for release this month, The Unknowns follows eight American heroes who accomplished extraordinary feats in the war’s most important battles. As a result of their amazing bravery, these eight men were selected to serve as Body Bearers at the ceremony where the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery.

One of those Body Bearers was Samuel Woodfill, a thirty-four-year-old Army sergeant temporarily promoted to lieutenant during the war. He had already seen combat in the Philippine-American War and the Mexican Border Expedition. Five-foot-ten and a lean 170 pounds, with light brown hair and blue eyes, Woodfill was a lifelong hunter who found that experience served him well on the battlefield. “There isn’t much difference between stalkin’ animals and stalkin’ humans,” He said. “It was usin’ the same tactics I had used in big-game huntin’ in Alaska ten years before. It’s all in outwittin’ the other fellow. If a bear sees you first, he will charge, tooth and claw. If these German gunners saw me first, the game would be up.”

The evening of October 11-12, 1918, Woodfill spent a miserable night in a waterlogged shell hole. “I discovered that if I lay on one side long enough without moving, the water inside my clothes would begin to feel warm, and then I’d drop off for a few winks,” he later explained. “If you get tired enough you can sleep anywhere, even with a few hundred cooties [lice and bedbugs] to keep you company.”

Just before 6:00 a.m., orders came down that Woodfill and the rest of M Company had just minutes to get ready to leave the relative safety of their shell holes and advanced into the Bois de Pultière, the woods in front of them where thousands of German soldiers lay in wait.

They advanced in skirmish lines, staggered to make themselves a more difficult target, but the enemy machine gunners still mowed down many of the men Woodfill led; most of them mere boys who had never before experienced combat. The survivors dashed from shell hole to shell hole, hoping to avoid the deadly bullets.

Leading from the front, Woodfill soon found himself in a position where he could see three different machine-gun nests that were targeting his men: one to his right in an abandoned stable, one directly in front of him, and a third in a church tower to his left. From his current position, the church tower presented the best target. Although Woodfill could not see the Germans inside, he put a round through the window. The fire from that direction immediately ceased, the gunner either dead or in flight.

Next, he turned toward the stable. Once again, he could not visualize the gunner inside; however, he could see where someone had removed a board to have a clear line of fire. Woodfill carefully aimed his Springfield and sent another round through the hole. Again, the enemy bullets ceased.

To get into position for the next target, Woodfill needed to move closer to the action. Once, then twice, he sprinted from one shellhole to the next. But to his dismay, the second was full of deadly mustard gas. With his eyes stinging and lungs burning, he scrambled out of the hole into a patch of sparse brush, and from there into a ditch near a roadway.

Finally in position to target the machine-gun nest in front of him, Woodfill strained to see the German soldier operating the gun. When a stray ray of sunlight briefly glinted off the enemy soldier’s helmet, Woodfill pulled the trigger and dropped the man with a single shot. But just seconds after the first man fell another took his place. “Four times a dead gunner was pulled away from the gun by a man who took his place, and each time I pulled the trigger of my rifle before he could open fire,” Woodfill recalled.

The fifth man attempted to crawl away, but he was no luckier than his comrades. Woodfill shot once more, emptying his five-round clip.

Choosing to take his chances at the gun rather than fleeing, a sixth German once again trained machine-gun fire in Woodfill’s direction. With no time to reload his rifle, Woodfill picked up his .45 and killed the final German in the nest.

With no more movement in the nest, the American approached the scene cautiously. He later described what he found: “There was the gun, and the pile of dead Germans behind it, with the tops of their heads torn off.”

With the first dangers eliminated, Woodfill yelled, “Follow me!” to the men behind him.

Within seconds, Woodfill encountered yet another German soldier lying on the ground — but this one was only pretending to be dead. “I started to swerve around him when he sprang to his feet, grabbed my rifle, and threw it into the air,” the American remembered. It was an old-fashioned shoot-out as both men reached for their pistols. Woodfill was the fastest draw, bringing his total of Germans killed for the day to seven.

The lieutenant and the few soldiers with him continued to advance, but yet another machine-gun nest and a nearby sniper soon got the Americans in their sights.

Diving for cover, Woodfill rolled and came to rest at the base of the very tree where the sniper was perched. The German fired a shot which landed between the American’s feet. But before he could shoot again, the lieutenant discharged his pistol, and the sniper tumbled from the branches.

Then using the same technique he had before, Woodfill picked off the men inside the nest one-by-one as they took their turns at the gun.

Again, the Americans advanced. Again, a German machine-gun nest fired on them.

This time, Woodfill crawled through swampy muck for thirty feet before finding an ideal position to fire. And in a repeat of the day’s earlier events, he single-handedly took out five more Germans as they took turns spraying a deadly volley of lead.

When no more Germans appeared, Woodfill dashed for the trench that held the machine gun. Jumping inside, he landed nearly on top of another enemy soldier. Woodfill squeezed the trigger on his pistol, hitting the man in the gut. As another German came charging from around the corner in the trench, Woodfill attempted to shoot again, but the weapon jammed. The Indianan grabbed the pickaxe, hitting the man with a blow to the skull. The German “fell like an ox.”

Inexplicably, gunfire sounded behind him. Woodfill ducked and turned to find the gut-shot soldier had somehow managed to pull the trigger. The American recalled, “Another blow of the pick, and I finished him and bounded out of that trench.”

A noise behind him startled Woodfill, and he swung around, ready for more combat.

“Don’t shoot, Lieutenant,” whispered a familiar voice. The men from his company had caught up to their leader, but they came bearing bad news: Germans were closing in behind them. If the small group of Americans didn’t leave the woods soon, they would be completely surrounded by enemy fighters.

Under constant fire from artillery, riflemen, and machine guns, what remained of Company M dashed back toward the relative safety of their own lines. As they neared the holes where they had begun that morning, a shell landed fifty feet away, and a “clod of earth as big as a house flew up and came down,” covering two men sheltering in a shell hole. Woodfill and his men quickly dug out the pair, who had miraculously survived, despite having their rifles torn from their hands and “twisted up like corkscrews.”

However, pieces of hot shrapnel from the round embedded themselves in Woodfill’s left leg. Despite the searing pain and his continued shortness of breath from gas exposure, the lieutenant made his way to his superior officer.

When asked what he had been doing to the Germans, Woodfill humbly replied, “I got a few.”

For his daring actions that day, Woodfill received the Medal of Honor, and General Pershing personally handpicked him to serve as one of the Body Bearers at the ceremony to honor the Unknown Soldier.

He continued to serve in the Army until 1923, when he and his wife bought a farm in Kentucky. Like thousands of other Doughboys, Pershing’s one-man army did his duty and then returned to the simple way of life he had fought so hard to protect. Even at the hundredth anniversary, few remember the deeds of this forgotten generation that shaped the world we live in today.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books. The Unknowns is his latest, which will be released in May. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries “Band of Brothers” and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian

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