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War hero

Almost forgotten ‘Greatest soldier
of World War I’ was from Madison

Local author Newell recounts
Woodfill’s battle history in book

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(December 2008) – It was a ferocious battle with thick fog all around on that fateful October morning in 1912. Sam Woodfill and his men were pinned down by German artillery and machine gun fire. Knowing how desperate the situation was, Woodfill went ahead of his men and slowly worked his way around the end of the machine gun encampment.

Ben Newell

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Author and retired history teacher
Ben Newell will sign copies of his book
on Dec. 12, at Village Lights Bookstore,
110 E. Main St., Madison.

Using his skill as an expert shot, Woodfill managed to take out five German soldiers, one by one, who were operating the gun. Carefully, Woodfill made his way through the battlefield picking off German machine gunners as he tried to clear the way for his men behind him. At the end of the day, he had taken out four machine gun nests with five men in each. At one point he fought hand-to-hand with a soldier and killed him with a grubbing pick.
While the events sound like a familiar movie of World War I exploits, Woodfill was a real person from Madison, Ind. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on that day. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing awarded Woodfill the medal and later called him “the greatest soldier of World War I.”
Retired history teacher and author Ben Newell recounts the story of Woodfill in his newly published “Major Sam Woodfill: The Greatest Soldier of WWI.” Newell will be at the Village Lights Bookstore, 110 E. Main St., from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 12 for a book signing and presentation. On Dec. 20, Newell will be at Waldon Books, in the Clarksville, Ind., Mall from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for a book signing.
“Woodfill was a true American hero during World War I,” said Newell, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison. “His life is full of colorful adventure and courage, and nobody knows about him. I think every student in Madison should read about him.”
Newell’s interest in Woodfill was peaked when one of Woodfill’s young relatives performed a brief play about him for a history project. Newell taught history for 33 years for the Madison Consolidated School Corp. He retired four years ago. “I started doing research, and the more I discovered, the more I was amazed,” he said.
Mike Foley, who taught alongside Newell for 33 years in Madison, said Newell’s love of history and his enthusiasm for it is evident in his book. “He did a great job,” said Foley, who helped Newell edit the book. “His heart was in this project, and it shows.”
Foley said Newell was an excellent history teacher who often dressed as historical characters to try to bring history to life for his students. He said Newell has also always been very respectful and caring about veterans who have served our country. “I think part of this project was his way of paying respect to all the veterans who have served our country so honorably,” he said. “Newell has always tried to give back to them because they gave their all for our country.”

Major Sam Woodfill "Greatest Soldier of WWI"

For about 20 years, Newell collected bits and pieces of information about Woodfill, and talked to some of his relatives still in the area. He discovered that at one point, Woodfill was more famous that Sergeant Alvin York, who performed a similar courageous feat during a battle in World War I.
York, a farmer from Tennessee, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others during the U.S.-led Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. York and Woodfill’s daring bravery happened at about the same time. A 1941 film starring Gary Cooper, “Sergeant York,” won Cooper an Academy Award and catapulted York to fame.
“York and Woodfill actually went around the country together during World War II trying to raise money for the troops,” said Newell.
His book chronicles Woodfill’s life as a career soldier who fought in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines and then later served for a time in Alaska during the Gold Rush. It discusses Woodfill’s life post-military, his financial struggles, and his numerous adventures.
The book is also filled with timely information about what was happening in Madison and the nation during Woodfill’s life. “I wanted to give people some background information on what else was happening in the local area as well,” said Newell. “I thought it would be interesting.”

• For more information about “Major Sam Woodfill: The Greatest Soldier of WWI,” visit: http://bennewell.wordpress.com.

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