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Old 01-16-2010, 02:39 PM   #1
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Sam Woodfill's Story

Major Sam Woodfill received the Medal of Honor in WWI. Some of us here know the name, but I'm guessing fewer know the story. His 127th birthday passed recently (Jan 6th), and when I saw that, I decided to see what I could learn about him and his story.

I thought I knew roughly what happened, but when I started looking it up, I only learned how much I didn't know.

It is such a good story that I decided to share what I read.

It may seem odd to post an historical summary here, but as you read it, I hope you will agree that it falls under "tactics". I think one would have to look long and hard to find a better example of the use of tactics.

Most have heard of Sgt Alvin York's rifle shooting feats of WWI, but I'd guess fewer know the details about Major Sam Woodfill's. Like York, Woodfill earned the Medal of Honor for a display of rifle marksmanship. It was a feat that was at least equally impressive, and strangely, the two events happened within days of each other. Woodfill also had one of the more unique army careers of anyone who ever served.

Sam Woodfill joined the army in 1901 at age 18 and was sent to the Phillipines. The US was still occupying the Phillipines after the Spanish-American War that ended three years earlier. This was a real shooting war; not some babysitting detail. Occupying troops were under constant attacks by Phillipine guerrilla fighters who were unhappy with the USA for not granting them independence after the Span-Am war. This was what more or less led to the "Phillipine Insurrection" that gets talked about in every article telling the history of the 1911 pistol.

After duty in the Phillipines, Woodfill was sent to Alaska. There was an Alaska-Yukon boundary dispute between the USA and Great Britain (who still ran Canada's business back then). It was supposedly resolved in a 1903 agreement, but there was some fear of conflict in the area between the two countries for a while afterward. The US sent quite a few troops to the area just in case, and Woodfill was one of them.

Next he was stationed in Texas. This would be about 1912. Mexico was busy with a civil war, and bandits were running wild. Pancho Villa made his now-famous raids into the US, and we built up the southwest border states with troops to help prevent that very problem.

So by this time, Woodfill could claim to have served guarding the US borders against very real threats of invasions by both Canada and Mexico. These were two very odd situations in our nation's history, and he was involved in both of them.

In 1917, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, having served in the enlisted ranks to that point. In the fall of 1918, he was sent to France with thousands of others in the American Expeditionary Force. He served in the 60th Infantry Division, and arrived in France as the six-week-long Meuse-Argonne battle was taking place.

The more I read about the events that earned him the Medal of Honor, the more variations of the story I found. And they varied widely. As is often the case, historians agree that the official citation for the MoH has the poorest and most inaccurate description. I found three basic versions of the story. I will try to combine them the best I can, eliminating parts that appear to be different versions of the same details.

On the morning of October 12, 1918, Lt Woodfill's 60th Infantry division was in the Meuse-Argonne battle just outside the French town of Cunel. Lt Woodfill took two men out on a patrol to find German machinegun (MG) positions. The day was foggy, and they were getting pounded by artillery and MG fire. They couldn't do much about the wet misty fog or the artillery, but maybe could get some relief from the MGs.

As they approached the village of Cunel, Woodfill studied the terrain for the most likely places to locate MGs. The first to stand out was a church tower an estimated 300 yards away. After watching it for a few minutes, he saw muzzle flashes confirming the presence of an MG. He aimed at the muzzle flash, then moved his point of aim back to where the gunner's head would be and fired, killing the gunner. He waited until the next man on the gun crew took his place, then killed him too. There were five men in the gun crew, he had five shots in his rifle, and he got them all.

Let's stop and look at this.

We all know of longer shots, but this case is as impressive as any I've heard of. First, he was shooting in an artillery barrage, and at an MG that could chew him up any second. This was no range exercise, nor for that matter, a shot from from a carefully located sniper position in the field either ( He wasn't a trained sniper either.). His visibility had to be limited not only by the fog and usual smoke and dust of battle, but by the fact he could not actually see his target (the gunner's head) and had to estimate where his target was. He only saw the MG muzzle, and had to hold off from that. Then there is the equipment used. He apparently used an issue rifle with issue ammunition. Whether it was an M1903 or M1917, I don't know, but it really doesn't matter much. I've owned and shot both, and like them a lot. But I have to be honest and say while they can both shoot pretty well, with wartime quality ball ammo 3 MOA is good.

Assuming he had a rifle/ammo combination that would do that, he was working with a nine inch group at 300 yards. Add in the artillery and visibility, and he pulled off some great shooting to hit a head.

And he did it five times in a row.

But he wasn't done. The next likely spot was a stable. After watching it, a machinegun was found there too. He fired one round and the gun went quiet, so we can assume the gunner was alone or the crew escaped after he was shot.

The third likely spot took some maneuvering to get to. Woodfill ordered the two men with him to stay put and he began crawling. Stories vary as to why he told them to stay. Somewhere along this approach, he took cover in a shell hole. As was the case with many shell holes in WWI, this one still had the remains of mustard gas collected in it from some earlier use of it. He got out, but not before suffering from it's effects to a degree.

He got within about 40 yards of this MG, taking cover in a ditch. Once again, five rounds to the head killed five crewmen.

But there were more than five there. A sixth ran from the site, and Woodfill grabbed up the 1911 pistol he had laid on the ground in front of him and shot him with one round.

Again- look at this one. The man started running when he was already 40 yards away. I would think Woodfill would have shot one-handed as people shot pistols back then. A running man at over 40 yards one-handed with a pistol? That's some skill, and coolness.

The fact he thought to keep the pistol handy shows he was thinking about how many rounds he had in the rifle, how many potential targets he might have, their close proximity, and how quickly he could reload.

When he moved up to inspect the site, he found another crewman and shot him with the 1911 as well.

Depending on the source, he either found a fourth MG nest now, was told about it by a runner, or the line signalled it's location by hand signals. Either way, he began stalking it. Staying observant to his surroundings, he spotted some camoflague in a tree. One shot, and a German sniper fell.

Woodfill got to the fourth MG position by moving through a creek that went through or past the village of Cunel. He fired five rounds, killing all five crew members as he had before, reloaded, and shot two or three ammunition bearers (depending on the source).

By now, he had moved pretty far out, and was past Cunel. Another likely MG location proved to be one, and five more crewman were shot. To do this and escape, he had to shoot then immediately fall back into a German trench. But there were two Germans in it. Again the story varied as to whether the pistol was used, and if it was used and malfunctioned after the first shot, but the summary is that he snatched up a pickax and killed both Germans with a pick.

The German MGs in the area were silenced.

This was the end of the war for Woodfill, since he was evacuated and treated for the effects of the mustard gas until after the war was over.

I count five MGs out of action, somewhere around 21 MG crewman, two or three ammo bearers, and one sniper killed by rifle fire, and a couple more by pistol fire, with NO misses.

Plus two with a pick.

Ranges were from 300+ yards to arm's length.

While being shelled and suffering from mustard gas exposure for part of it.

On Feb 19, 1919, General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing personally presented Woodfill with the Medal of Honor, and promoted him to Captain. Pershing praised Woodfill, because before he went over to France, Pershing said he wanted American forces to shoot and fight rather than occupy trenches for months on end. Woodfill gave him just what he wanted.

The French awarded him the Croix deGuerre with palm, and made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

The Italians awarded him the Merriot de Guerra.

Montenegro gave him the Cross of Prince Danillo, First Class.

Then, sadly, his story goes to hell.

In late 1919, Woodfill reenlisted with the intention of retiring on an officer's pension in a few years. The army refused to pay him a Captain's pension and would only let him reenlist as a sergeant.

The army continued this practice of getting all they could from him for many years after.

He was selected as one of three WWI veterans to serve in the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier dedication in 1921 (Alvin York was another).

Then Woodfill returned to civilian life, where he struggled. He tried starting an orchard, but the trees died. He bought more trees but most of them died too. He took a job as a watchman at a mill. He could barely support his wife and himself and the watchman's pay and sergeant's pension.

When WWII broke out, he was still a watchman, but at another mill. The army once again got all they could get from him by using him as a morale tool. While they had no use for him as an officer before, they offered him a commission as a Major to be a rifle instructor. This was basically a publicity and morale show that also done with other WWI heroes like Alvin York and Eddie Rickenbacker. He took the offer both to serve his country and to get badly needed money.

While serving in this capacity, his wife of 25 years died. Woodfill seems to have lost interest in serving in the army after that, and retired to his small farm in SE Indiana near Cincinnati.

He lived until 1951.

Neighbors found him a few days after he died. Nobody had looked for him when he first went missing, since he had remarked he needed to go to Cincinnati for plumbing supplies.

Samuel Woodfill, who served from the Phillipine Occupation through WWII, was one of the most decorated WWI veterans, and Pershing's "favorite doughboy", died alone and broke.


Various groups would learn of his struggles and try to do things to help him out. Those that tried to get congressional help (like to get his pension increased to that of a Captain) failed, but they did manage to get him better jobs at times. The community took care of those who took care of them, even if the army and congress would not.

He was buried in a local cemetary, but through the efforts of others, his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetary where he was buried with full honors.
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Old 01-17-2010, 12:38 AM   #2
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Sam Woodfill's Story

An amazing story, Barry. I wasn't familiar with this one, thanks for bringing it up. It makes me think of the Rhodesian Bush War tactics of the "cover shoot"--i.e., identify likely cover and shoot through it.

I know there's some similarly heroic stories being written now in Iraq and Afghanistan--I get rumors of them through word-of-mouth, or e-mail. I hope they're told properly someday, so we can both honor them and learn from them.

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Old 01-17-2010, 07:56 AM   #3
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Sam Woodfill's Story

Thank you Barry. Sam Woodfill was always mentioned by the late, great Jeff Cooper. I would hazard that the 60th Infantry Division would have been equipped with M1917 rifles as the M1903s were less common in the National Army of the United States.

I am always reminded of Ira Hayes death when I hear of such things. Burgs, the thanks of a grateful nation is not something you can live on.
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Old 01-17-2010, 12:41 PM   #4
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Sam Woodfill's Story

Yes, Jeff Cooper would write something along the lines of "...and we know of Woodfill..." and I would think yes, I know of him, but I don't know much about him. I always meant to do a little research, but didn't until I saw Sam Woodfill's name in print a couple of times recently.

When I did, all I could say was "wow".

Oberstlt is probably right about the M1917. Just by the odds alone, it is more likely due to the greater number of M1917s issued. I do wonder, however, if Woodfill being in the regular army would have mattered. I guess what I'm thinking is- Would there be a greater chance that the regulars already had M1903s before the war and the volunteers and call-ups who entered service after the war started would have got most of those M1917s?

I could have read this sometime if it was the case, but don't remember now if I have.

Thinking Woodfill could have had an M1917, I considered something else but have mostly dismissed it. And that concerns the rifle's magazine capacity.

The M1917 would hold six rounds of .30-06, since in it's original P14 form, the magazine box was designed to hold five .303s with their large rims. This made me wonder how many rounds they meant when the descriptions of the event say he "emptied his rifle". I thought that maybe his "score" could be higher because obviously when he would "empty his rifle, telling with each round" and the rifle held six instead of five, he would have hit one more German each time.

But I have decided that probably wasn't the case.

First, I have never read anything about "doughboys" loading six rounds in the M1917s. That isn't to say they didn't, but I would think that if it was done, it would have come up often (even if from an old soldier letting you in on his "secret trick"). I haven't seen it mentioned in any books or by anyone old enough to be anywhere near WWI.

Second, if it was done, I would think it would only be done when the rifle was first loaded. After that, the rifle would be reloaded with five round clips. I know they could have kept loose rounds handy to slip a sixth one in after charging by stripper clip, but I think that's something that sounds better/easier in theory than in practice. Woodfill started with a loaded rifle, and reloaded at least four times, perhaps five. I'm inclined to guess he just shoved a clip of cartridges in and went about his business, but could be wrong.

And of course, it's only a guess as to what rifle he had anyway.

But getting away from hardware, it has been foggy here the past two days as it supposedly was on that day in 1918. That may be something many of you see regularly, but we usually don't. Being out in it has made it more clear to me how much of a factor it could have been that day. Besides making his shooting more impressive, I have to think he probably used the fog to his advantage.

In the descriptions I read of the event, there was some disagreement on why the two men he started out with were left behind after the first MG (or second MG in some). Some say he ordered them to hold their position for various reasons, like to provide cover if he needed it as he maneuvered. Most indicated they didn't go that far, but one said they were also affected by the mustard gas in the shell hole like Woodfill, but ordered to stay by Woodfill because they were unable to continue.

I think there is another possibility. I'm guessing he knew he could easier "get away with" things if he was one man working alone.

He had been a rifleman and hunter since he was a boy. He had to know it was an ideal situation for a hunter, where the weather and conditions worked much more his advantage than for his quarry. He could stay unseen while they gave themselves away with MG fire. It's a lot harder to stalk with a second or third man.

I don't know. Just some random thoughts.
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Old 01-19-2010, 10:19 AM   #5
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Sam Woodfill's Story

It is my understanding that not all of the National Army of the United States was armed with either M1903s or M1917s. It appears however that a bit of our Army was armed with Lebels (the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd Divisions when they served with the French who loved them) and another with Mosin-Nagants when we sent regiments to Russia. I have also been told that the Army in Italy was armed with SMLEs but I don't really know about that. M1903s were comparatively rare I have been told.

The Regular Army is designated to have infantry divisions from the 1st to the 25th. The National Guard is numbered from 26 (Yankee) to 50 (never organized I think) and the Army Reserve from 51 thru at least the 106th (Golden Lions of the Bulge fame). Armored Division were generally all RA until after WWII with the creation (temporary) of the 49th Lone Star and 50th Jersey Blues Armored Divsions.

By way of explanation it is possible for a regular to serve in any and or all of the Army of the United States (the NAUS during WWI). The theory is that the Regulars (now Active Army) act as the leavening to spread expertise thru the rest of the citizen army. Remember that before WWI and WWII our Regular Army was tiny and numbered even below some banana republics even with the National Guard fully mobilized. The Army Reserve was created about the turn of the last century to make up for some short comings in the Guard.

It is not at all unusual that a regular soldier might rise quickly during war time from enlisted to officer rank. Some will be commissioned directly and others thru OCS. It is also most likely that they will serve in either a Guard or Reserve Division. My late guv was a regular before WWII and sent to OCS in 1940. He was then assigned to a Guard unit where most of the officers were demobilized for age, fitness and education issues. When that unit was ready to deploy, he was reassigned to a new Army Reserve division. He was promoted to temporary captain on the spot but reverted to his permanent grade on going to flight school.

The National Guard continues to be a bit of an issue for those of us connected with the Army. In my own opinion it is not a realistic expectation to think that a geographically based unit of part time soldiers can be mobilized and deployed in anything under a year without regard to how much money and support it is given. The Army Reserve does only slightly better but is much more deeply connected to the Active Army in funding, organization and training.

The strength of a nation lies in its citizens and not in its military. But the leadership, there is the rub!
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Old 01-19-2010, 11:39 AM   #6
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Sam Woodfill's Story

Interesting. Thanks for the insight. When reading H.W. McBride's "A Rifleman Went To War", I realized I had a lot to learn about the makeup of the army back then. Researching this shows that I still do.

Since posting the above, I found that most of the sources say he was in the 60th Division, but when I found an organizational chart, there was no 60th div.

Looking at the Medal of Honor citation, it says 5th division, 60th regiment. That makes perfect sense, since the 5th division came out of Indiana, which is where he would have enlisted originally.

And that's when I realized the info had gotten scrambled over the years (as unit info often does by those who don't know a division from a platoon) and repeated over and over.

The thing that keeps bugging me is the army putting him back as an enlisted man after the war. Besides being a crappy deal, it just doesn't fit. If he had been made an officer during the war, I could make it fit at least, but he was made a 2nd Lt in mid 1917- over a year before the US entered the war.

In light of finding the errors as to what division he was in, I am now wondering about the accuracy of that also. I only found the info on the time of the 2Lt promotion in one place. I will do some more looking there when I have time.
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Old 01-19-2010, 03:30 PM   #7
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Sam Woodfill's Story

The 5th Infantry Division (The Red Diamond) is a Regular Army Division but no longer active. During WWI they had what they called a square division with four infantry regiments and one of field artillery. This makes sense to me now as I did not recall a 60th Division. Try to find the 23rd ID and see what comes up.

But prior to the Reserve Officer Promotion Act of 1950, officers commissioned from the ranks or OCS were given temporary commissions (hence Temporary Gentlemen). When the hostilities ceased, they reverted to their enlisted ranks. My old Guv was reduced to his in 1946 but opted to be discharged instead. He had been pending promotion to captain and would pend it again during the Korean War before being discharged again! He finally made it to CPT in 1957. He also served his last years of active duty as a major but was retired as a LTC. I have three sets of orders promoting him to captain (1946, 1954 and 1957).

After ROPA it was possible for an enlisted man on active duty to be a reserve officer as well. I knew an SFC who had been a major and completed CGSC who took his orders from the dumbest second john in the Army (ah, that would have been me). When he retired a few years later he was a retired LTC. Good guy. This system got revised with the Defense Personnel Management Act in the late 1990s. Changed a few things.

The Army system ain't perfect but it is better than it was. Seniority has some advantages but is hard on the talented young ones. After I retired in 2002 (mandatory statutory removal) each time the Army asked me to volunteer to return I reminded them that they not only promoted Janice Karpinski (of abu Graib fame) instead of me to colonel but they made her a brigadier to boot and asked them how that worked out. I personally had had enough. I wish I could do more but old soldiers ain't good for much in combat arms.

The mistake of the 60th Infantry and the 5th Infantry Division is a common thing. Marines don't actually think about divisions but do about regiments. Soldiers now generally thing about battalions and not regiments. Now they have Brigade Combat Teams. No phreaking idea about that.
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Old 01-19-2010, 04:00 PM   #8
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Sam Woodfill's Story

OK, it's starting to clear up for me now. I'm guessing that when Woodfill was promoted from the ranks, even though it was before US involvement in the war, it was almost certainly done as part of getting ready to enter it (along with a few million other things). And maybe that was why it was considered a wartime promotion that he didn't keep? It was but it wasn't.

BTW- I always liked Jeff Cooper's idea of suspending income tax for MoH recipients. I suppose the fault in that plan lies in attaching a monetary value to it, which would surely come into play at times and affect who got them and who didn't.

The tendancy to confuse regiments, divisions, and armies will probably always be a problem. I don't know how many times I've heard of soldiers in the 3rd div in WWII getting newspaper clippings of "Patton's troops" their family saved and sent. "Thanks ma, but I'm in the 3rd Armored, not the 3rd Army."

Passed over for Col/Gen/Col Karpinski? Well, it's not like you got reminded of that again or anything, like maybe every time you picked up a newspaper for a while.
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Old 01-19-2010, 09:04 PM   #9
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Sam Woodfill's Story

Sam Woodfill's story has always been one of my favorites. Your research and re-telling enlightened me on some things that I was unaware of. I do believe the 5th US Division would have been armed with M1903s.

I also had thought that Woodfill had been a competition shooter for the Army prior to the war - I may be mis-remembering this though. I just picked up the old book Woodfill of the Regulars, but have yet to read it.
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Old 01-19-2010, 11:29 PM   #10
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Sam Woodfill's Story

I had read a couple of places saying he had been a rifle competitor before the war, but that was the extent of what they said. Nothing went into any detail about that whatsoever.

I wanted to know more about that, but didn't see anything.
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