Born in eastern Kentucky in 1891, William Sandlin rose to national prominence for his military exploits in World War I. Upon returning home, he used his celebrity to raise awareness of the costs of adult illiteracy. His 1949 death was attributed to the effects of injuries sustained during his service.
Sandlin earned his Congressional Medal of Honor on a day that seems ripped from an action movie rather than real life. Serving as a Sergeant in Company A, 132nd Infantry, Prairie Division, at Bois de Forges, France, on September 26, 1918, Sandlin was determined to advance and capture the objective laid our in the day's orders. Unfortunately for Sandlin and his troops, they found themselves pinned down by two carefully placed machine gun nests as soon as they began their advance.
Yet, Sandlin perceived a slight gap in the coverage arcs created by the machine guns and made a daring dash between them. He was just out of the range of the nests, but under fire from both, as he lobbed hand grenades into one entrenchment. He followed quickly behind the explosions and used his bayonet to subdue those German troops unharmed by the grenades. Sandlin's single-handed capture of one machine gun nest allowed the American troops to outflank the other and advance on toward their objective. Unsatisfied with the eight Germans he put out of the fight in this remarkable episode, Sandlin repeated the feat twice more that day, each time advancing alone with grenades and his bayonet to clear the entrenched enemies from the Americans' path.
Despite taking injury in these actions, Sandlin continued to fight through the rest of the war. He participated the broader Battle of Argonne Forest where he experienced the horror of poison gas. One of the most chilling innovations in the technology of war that came out of World War I, poison gas could not be neutralized by a brave charge like Sandlin made at the machine gun nests.
Upon returning home after the Armistice, Sandlin bought a farm and settled back in eastern Kentucky. He also took up work against adult illiteracy. He traveled with Cora Wilson Stewart to promote "Midnight Schools" where adults took night classes. He crafted his appeal through his military experiences, emphasizing the difficulties that he had gaining an officers commission because of his early struggles with illiteracy.
In 1949, Sandlin died from continuing lung complications that dated back to his exposure to poison gas on the battlefields of France. The lingering illness and eventual death of this brave Kentucky soldier illustrates the changing face of warfare ushered in by World War I. Sandlin's courage proved equal to the challenge of entrenched machine guns, but eventually succumbed to the impersonal weapon of floating chemicals.
Historical Marker #631 was dedicated in 1964 and bridge over the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River on KY 30 in Breathitt County was dedicated as the "Sergeant Willie Sandlin Memorial Bridge" in 2016.