Exclusive–patrick k. o’donnell on pershing’s one-man army samuel woodfill, body bearer of the unknown soldier breitbart gas and supply shreveport

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.

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.

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.

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.”

“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.”

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