American doughboys of World War I endured deadly poisonous gas attacks and trench warfare horrors, but some veterans emerged from the “war to end all wars” as heroes you may not know. Names like Alvin York, John J. Pershing, and Eddie Rickenbacker have become celebrated and established as revered heroes, but the exploits and bravery of many others have slipped into obscurity. Two individuals stand out with unusual stories of courage, stamina, and the ability to withstand the daily carnage on the artillery-shelled, potholed wastes devoid of any foliage where 116,708 Americans were killed and 205,690 wounded.
Most Highly Decorated Honored on Veterans Day
Samuel Woodfill was raised in the Midwest, in Bryantsburg, Indiana, an unincorporated town originally platted in 1854 with just 32 lots. With an upbringing similar to Alvin York, most of his neighbors and friends considered Woodfill a crack shot before he reached the age of ten. Service to the country was a family tradition. He was the son of a Mexican American War and American Civil War veteran. Yet Woodfill’s exploits would surpass those of his father and earn him the Medal of Honor. The citation for the award speaks of Samuel’s bravery but more so to the vicious intensity of the combat. “[T]his officer for the third time demonstrated conspicuous daring by charging another machine gun position, killing five men in one machine gun pit with his rifle,” it reads. “He then drew his revolver and started to jump into the pit, when two other gunners only a few yards away turned their guns on him. Failing to kill them with his revolver, he grabbed a pick lying nearby and killed both of them.”
In 1921, Samuel Woodfill served as a pallbearer along with York during the burial and dedication ceremony for the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. He also was one of the pallbearers for General Pershing in 1948. Pershing called him “the greatest American Soldier of the World War.” In addition, Woodfill was considered the most decorated soldier of World War I.
So, why don’t we hear much about him? “Woodfill disliked public events and noted, ‘I’m tired of being a circus pony. Every time there is something doing, they trot me out to perform,’” the Indy Star explained in a homage to the first lieutenant. Of course, there is also the fact that Hollywood did not make a movie about Samuel Woodfill starring Gary Cooper.
Marine Awarded Medal of Honor by Two Military Services
In one of the last combat actions in World War I, Private John J. Kelly had the unique distinction of having been awarded the Medal of Honor by both the US Army and the US Navy. Kelly enlisted in the US Marine Corps during 1917 in Chicago, Illinois, and served in combat operations at the front in France during the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge. In October 1918, Kelly and his unit faced German fixed gun emplacements that had held since 1915. Taking the German gun positions was not going to be easy. As the account of Kelly’s heroism explained:
“Rather than take cover from the incoming fire, Kelly sprinted toward the German emplacement, throwing a grenade into the machine gun nest and then opening fire with his pistol. Kelly then pinned down eight German troops with gunfire before accepting their surrender. He then marched all eight back to the American lines, again through the artillery barrage.”
When General John Pershing awarded Kelly the US Army Medal of Honor, the Marine Corps private was already wearing the US Navy version of the medal presented earlier. Consequently, Kelly moved to the front of the line during the ceremony, though only a private, in front of several general officers. Conspicuous gallantry has its privileges over rank.
Woodfill and Kelly are two World War I heroes whose stories of courage and fortitude are as real now as they were at the time of the “Great War.” As the beneficiaries of the unbelievable bravery of the untold hundreds of thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines, we have an obligation to remember. Especially, we must look with pride on the day set aside to honor them.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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