Watching in disbelief from the woods, the soldiers witnessed their company commander beat back waves of attacking Germans at Holtzwihr, France. He ordered them to a prepared position in the woods while he maintained a forward observation post and despite his wounds, fought two German companies single-handedly. The soldiers, crouching on the frozen ground, witnessed artillery rain down on the enemy while this lone, brave soldier climbed a burning tank destroyer and fired a .50 caliber machine gun from the burning tank, inflicting up to 50 enemy casualties.[i] “What is he doing?” “He’s going to get killed?” These questions must have gone through their head. This was not the first time that these soldiers had witnessed the miraculous from their leader. He was a baby-faced kid from Texas. His name was Audie Murphy.
Stereotypes are supposed to typify what we expect. When we think of war heroes, particularly the type that defeat large numbers of the enemy through firepower or battlefield leadership, Rambo or John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker run through our mind. We certainly do not think of twenty year olds that look sixteen, as Murphy did the day his actions earned him the Medal of Honor. There was nothing in his background that would cause anyone to consider him hero material. He did not come from a long line of soldiers, did not attend West Point, and did not graduate at the top of his military training units. However, there was something inside of Murphy that made him, not necessarily different, but willing to go to the next level in defending his country. Murphy’s propensity to engage the enemy, make quick battlefield decisions, and personally open himself to enemy fire, led to numerous heroic actions; so many in fact, that Murphy became the most decorated American soldier of World War II.
From Boy to Soldier
Born June 20, 1924, to Texas sharecroppers, Audie Leon Murphy was one of twelve children. After his father abandoned the family, Murphy helped support them by working various jobs and hunting small game. His hunting and marksmanship skills would prove valuable in combat. When speaking of his ability to stalk and shoot game, Murphy would say such things as, “If I don’t shoot straight, we don’t eat.”[ii] At just sixteen years old, his mother died, leaving him and his older sister Corrine with the difficult decision of placing the younger children in an orphanage. They would later bring them back, sharing care for them in various capacities. Life was difficult for Murphy when the event of December 7, 1941 changed everything.
Murphy, like many young boys, sought enlistment in the military. Most of those young boys were at least eighteen, while Murphy was just seventeen and looked fifteen, resulting in rejections by the Marines and Army Paratroopers.[iii] Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, and with an affidavit signed by his sister Corinne testifying to his age, he entered the Army Infantry. During his early training, Murphy’s superiors sought a non-combative route for him due to his size, but Murphy insisted on advanced infantry training, which he received. Like many other young men, he trained, waited, and then boarded a transport ship for his journey across the Atlantic. Murphy had become a soldier.
Murphy, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, arrived for duty in North Africa. This duty was largely training for the upcoming invasion of Sicily. The Allies mission in North Africa to expel the Axis forces had been successful, and now the invasion of Western Europe was the dominating goal in the European theatre. The route through Italy would establish a foothold for the Allies in Western Europe, distract Axis attention from a potential invasion in France, and with the renewed Allied control of North Africa, open up shipping in the Mediterranean.
Audie Murphy said, “You’ve got to believe you are right to be a good soldier. That’s why mercenaries are no good. It’s emotion that makes a good fighting man…and knowing you are fighting for a good cause.”[iv] Murphy was emotionally involved and completely dedicated to fighting for his country. Fighting his way through Italy, he was first recognized for heroism at Anzio beachhead. On March 2, 1944, with his unit pinned down and under attack, Murphy crawled 100 yards to fire rifle grenades at an enemy tank. Successful, he was able to lead his patrol through German fire to safety, an act, which earned him the Bronze Star.[v] Noticed by his superiors, he quickly moved up in rank and responsibility, eventually earning a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant, common during World War II due to the lack of junior officers in the U.S. Army. Like many other soldiers, Murphy experienced the drudgery of a soldier’s life, but now, the officer and emerging combat leader, headed to France, where his actions would make him a household name.
The combat decorations awarded to Murphy included multiple purple hearts, two silver stars, foreign awards such as the French Croix de Guerre, and numerous others. As the 3rd Division joined the march to Germany via France, Murphy won the bulk of these awards, including the Medal of Honor for actions at Holtzwihr. A thorough reading of each citation could cause one to disbelieve they were awarded to one person. The awards have a common theme of Murphy instructing his squad or platoon to hold their position, while he moved forward to observe or engage the enemy, typically inflicting numerous casualties while exposing himself to harm. Witnesses suggesting that Murphy was anything less than what was described on the battlefield cannot be found. He was simply one of the most outstanding combat leaders the U.S. military has ever produced.
The Most Decorated Soldier
After the war, life is suppose to be normal, but fame, and the sheer shock from combat, would keep Murphy from any type of normal life. He returned to America with a hero’s welcome, in cities across America. Several “hometowns” would claim him, since he had lived in so many towns east of Dallas, such as Farmersville, Celeste, and Greenville. Numerous parades and visits with distinguished guests filled his itinerary.[vi] It seemed that everybody wanted a little piece of this real American hero, but the call of Hollywood beckoned him. Actor Jimmy Cagney first invited him to the Golden state where he would make numerous connections and appear in 44 films, mostly Westerns. It was his memoir, To Hell and Back that would lead to his most famous film of the same name and became the highest grossing film at the time for Universal studios.
Privately, Murphy’s marriage to actress Wanda Hendrix was short-lived, but his second marriage to Pamela Archer produced two children, and would last over twenty years. Life was not without struggles as Murphy suffered difficult memories from the war, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting in drug misuse, depression, and nightmares. This condition, which Murphy would publicly acknowledge, brought the war home on numerous occasions. It was not unusual for Murphy to sleep with a pistol under his pillow. Although Murphy would continue to hunt, the only military related functions he pursued were National Guard duties, eventually rising to the rank of Major. In addition to songwriting and freemasonry, Murphy engaged in several business ventures such as ranching, some successful, and some not. It was one such business venture that led Murphy on a fatal plane trip from Georgia to Virginia. A report on May 31, 1974, revealed the plane wreckage with all aboard perished.[vii]
Every American war has a soldier that rises from the ranks to surpass all expectations. Some, such as Alvin York from World War I, are given ticker tape parades and have movies made about them. Others, such as Vietnam Veteran Joe Hooper, one of the most decorated soldiers in history, are largely forgotten, due largely to their participation in an unpopular war. America loves its heroes and it loved Audie Murphy. Some refer to the legend of Audie Murphy; however, there was no legend, only reality. Murphy rose from boyhood to manhood, from civilian to soldier, from obscurity to national treasure. He embodied the ability of the U.S. Army to select, train, equip, and transform a citizen into a highly effective soldier.
Although not cold and calloused, Murphy knew his duty. Upon his first killings he remarked: “Now I have shed my first blood, I feel no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only a weary indifference that will follow me throughout the war.”[viii] Murphy was extremely motivated to protect and defend his country, even to the point of risking his life, which he proved on numerous occasions. It was this quality of protecting and defending his country that made him an excellent combat leader. He did not take the traditional path of military leadership, such as West Point, or officer training school. Rather, Murphy had instinctive qualities and sheer bravery that demanded he lead from the front—and lead, he did. How ironic that one of his first movie roles was playing young Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, but unlike Henry’s fleeing from the battle, Audie Murphy ran toward it.
Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website. Richard L. Rogers, http://www.audiemurphy.com/ (accessed August 10, 2008).
Champagne, Daniel R. “Audie Murphy: One Man Stand at Holtzwihr.” World War II, (May, 2002). http://www.historynet.com/audie-murphy-one-man-stand-at-holtzwihr.htm (accessed July 18, 2008)
Graham, Don. No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
Joiner, Ann Livingston. A Myth In Action: The Heroic Life of Audie Murphy. Baltimore: Publish America, 2006.
Murphy, Audie. To Hell and Back. New York: Holt, 1949.
Simpson, Colonel Harold, B. Audie Murphy: American Soldier. Hillsboro, TX: The Hill Jr. College Press, 1975.
Whiting, Charles. Hero: The Life and Death of Audie Murphy. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House Publishers, 1990.
[i] Charles Whiting, Hero: The Life and Death of Audie Murphy, (Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House Publishers, 1990), 39.
[ii] Colonel Harold B. Simpson, Audie Murphy: American Soldier, (Hillsboro, TX: The Hill Jr. College Press, 1975), 23.
[iii] Ibid, 45.
[iv] Whiting, 75.
[v] The Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website, “Audie Murphy’s Bronze Stars,” Richard L. Rogers, http://www.audiemurphy.com/award5.htm (accessed August 10, 2008).
[vi] Ann Levingston Joiner, A Myth in Action: The Heroic Life of Audie Murphy, (Baltimore: Publish America, 2006), 110.
[vii] Whiting, 257.
[viii] Whiting, 66.