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Remembering Hoosiers in Battle

by Mary Hill

Lucy Higgs Nichols, a woman of remarkable courage and determination, was not a native of Indiana. However, she earned the honorary citizenship of New Albany, Indiana, when she joined forces with the Indiana 23rd Volunteer Regiment during the Civil War. Born into slavery in North Carolina on April 10, 1838, Lucy defied the odds in 1862. She managed to escape with her young daughter, Mona, embarking on a treacherous journey of over twenty miles to the camp of the 23rd Regiment in Bolivar, Tennessee. Under the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, the 23rd Regiment was able to protect Lucy, ensuring her that she would not be enslaved again.

After the war, when the Regiment concluded its military obligation, Lucy went to New Albany, where many of the Regiment's men were from. Lucy continued to care for former troops who had become ill. After her husband's death, Lucy could not live on her $12 per month federal pension and moved into the Floyd County Poor Farm on January 5, 1915. On January 29, 1915, Lucy died and was buried with military honors. Today, a statue in New Albany of Lucy and her daughter, Mona, commemorates her unfailing loyalty to the Indiana 23rd Volunteer Regiment.

Lucy stayed with the Regiment throughout the rest of the war, nursing soldiers on the front lines. She followed them on many long, hazardous marches, including General Sherman's March to the Sea. Even after the death of her five-year-old daughter, Lucy remained with the 23rd Regiment.

Samuel Woodfill, a modest and skilled marksman, was born in Jefferson County, near Madison, Indiana, in January 1883. He is best known for his heroic actions in World War I. While serving in France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on October 12, 1918, Woodfill had to lead his men through enemy territory. Soon after, the Germans attacked, leaving Woodfill only one option. He chose to advance alone toward the enemy rather than endanger any of his men. Using his marksman skills, Woodfill fatally wounded several German snipers and their back-ups. He also determined the location of the German encampments.

Rejoined by his men, Woodfill and his troops encountered German shelling throughout the afternoon. Finally, the shelling stopped, and the men returned to safe territory.

Woodfill would spend ten weeks in the hospital recovering from the effects of the mustard gas he inhaled during combat. Woodfill's heroism inspired others and influenced the course of the war. Woodfill had left his backpack behind during the fight and was relieved to find it intact when he retrieved it. However, a jar of strawberry jam that he was hoping to savor was missing—Woodfill was devastated. He immediately accused the "yellow-bellied son of a sea cook" of stealing it. To appease Woodfill, the company baked a fresh apple pie just for him.

Woodfill received many medals, including the Medal of Honor, for his bravery during the offensive. Still, years later, according to the Indiana History Blog, he said, "I don't think any medal I ever got pleased me half as much as that apple pie."In 1921, General Pershing chose pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier. While going down a list of names to choose from, he immediately stopped when he saw Woodfill's name and remarked, "Why, I have already picked that man as the greatest single hero in the American forces."Samuel Woodfill passed away on August 10, 1951, and was buried with little acclaim. But in 1955, his heroics story again came to light. As a tribute to Woodfill, his body was relocated to Arlington Cemetery, next to General Pershing. He was buried with full military honors.

On July 30, 1945, Jimmy O'Donnell, a water tender third class (WT3) working in the boiler room, was aboard the USS Indianapolis when the Japanese torpedoed the ship. The USS Indianapolis, on a secret mission, had just delivered two crates containing the atomic bomb components to the island of Tinian and was sailing to Leyte. Eight hundred crew members survived the attack only to find themselves in shark-invested waters. These waters swallowed all but 317 survivors, of whom O'Donnell was one.

After serving in the Navy, O'Donnell became a member of the Indianapolis Fire Department and retired as a lieutenant in 1981. O'Donnell received many honors, including the Purple Heart, the Asiatic Pacific medal with five stars, and the Medal of Peace. He is also honored with a bronze statue of himself that is permanently placed at the City Market in downtown Indianapolis. O'Donnell was born on July 8, 1920, and died on January 9, 2013.

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