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Old Time Kentucky: State’s only World War I Medal of Honor winner was also a modest hero

By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

“The most modest hero of the world war” is buried in Louisville’s Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.

That hero, Sgt. Willie Sandlin, was Kentucky’s only Medal of Honor winner in World War I.

The Leslie countian single-handedly wiped out three German machine gun nests. He killed at least 24 enemy soldiers and reputedly helped capture 200 more in France in 1918.

The Medal of Honor is America’s highest decoration for bravery in battle. A grateful France awarded Sandlin the Military Medal, that nation’s greatest honor for heroism in war. But the publicity-shy Kentuckian wouldn’t wear any of his medals home.

Sgt. Willie Sandlin, was Kentucky’s only Medal of Honor winner in World War I (Photo Provided)

Sgt. Willie Sandlin, was Kentucky’s only Medal of Honor winner in World War I (Photo Provided)

Sandlin died in 1949 at age 59. He succumbed to a lung ailment attributed to a German poison gas attack.

Sandlin was 28 when Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of all American forces in Europe, awarded him the Medal of Honor.

Born in Breathitt County, Sandlin grew up in Leslie County, where he was living when he joined the army in 1917.

Sandlin arrived on France’s blood-soaked Western Front in time for the massive Allied offensive that finished off war-weary Germany on Nov. 11, 1918. But on Sept. 26, the Germans had enough fight left to stop Sandlin’s outfit, the 33rd Infantry Division’s 132nd Infantry Regiment, near Bois de Forges, France.

German machine gunners had killed or wounded many of Sandlin’s fellow Doughboys. Survivors were hugging the ground, flat on their bellies, ducking the deadly hail of enemy bullets.

Something made the Kentuckian stand up. Armed with a rifle, automatic pistol and four hand grenades, he charged eight Germans in a machine gun nest.

His Medal of Honor citation read, in part: “Sergeant Sandlin showed conspicuous gallantry in action by advancing alone directly on a machine gun nest which was holding up the line with its fire. He killed the crew with a grenade and enabled the line to advance. Later in the day he attacked alone and put out of action two other machine gun nests, setting a splendid example of bravery and coolness to his men.”

Pershing praised Sandlin for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.”

Photo by Berry Craig

Photo by Berry Craig

Sandlin never bragged about his heroic feats. But his fellow Kentuckians dubbed him the Bluegrass State’s “answer” to Sgt. Alvin C. York, the famous Tennessee Medal of Honor recipient. York inspired the movie, Sergeant York, a Hollywood classic that starred Gary Cooper as the Tennessean, a quiet, humble soldier like Sandlin.

A 1950 Lexington newspaper story hailed Sandlin as “the most modest hero of the World War” and claimed he helped bag 200 German prisoners. York was credited with killing 28 and capturing 132.

After World War I, Sandlin settled on a farm on Owls Nest Creek near Hyden, the Leslie County seat. He was buried in Hurricane Cemetery between Hyden and Wooten.

Following her husband’s death, Belvia Sandlin, who never remarried, moved to Louisville. In 1990, she had her husband’s remains reinterred in the national cemetery, which is named for President Zachary Taylor, who had lived nearby. A tall monument to Taylor and his vault are landmarks in the cemetery at 4701 Brownsboro Road.

Belvia Sandlin was buried with her husband after she died in 1999 at age 96.

An ordinary soldier’s headstone marks Sandlin’s grave in the grassy, tree-shaded burial ground. But his name is etched on the white marble stone in gold letters. A likeness of the Medal of Honor is also outlined in gold.

There is nothing on the grave marker denoting the Military Medal. Perhaps Sandlin might not have minded it if the Medal of Honor emblem had been left off, too.


Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, and, with Dieter Ullrich, Unconditional Unionist: The Hazardous Life of Lucian Anderson, Kentucky Congressman. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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