Sunday, January 25, 2015

Audie Murphy

Arlington, VA    Visited April 1972

This post is dedicated to the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.  Today, January 25, 2015 is the 70th Anniversary of Audie Murphy’s one-man war on German infantry and tanks that resulted in him receiving the Medal of Honor.  His story is about as classic an American tale as you can imagine. 

Murphy Kids in rural Texas - Audie Leon on right
Audie Leon Murphy was born June 20, 1925 in Kingston, TX; the seventh of twelve children of a poor sharecropper who deserted the family when Audie was five.  Young Audie quit school in the fifth grade to work and support the family.  When his mother died around his 16th birthday, Murphy tried to earn enough money to keep the family together but several of his younger siblings were sent to an orphanage. 

With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 the sixteen year-old teen joined thousands of other patriotically-minded young men and tried to enlist to fight in the war effort.  He was rejected by all the military branches because he was both too young and too small – 5’5” and 110 pounds of teenage zeal.  Just after his 17th birthday Audie’s sister falsified an affidavit on his age and Murphy was accepted into the U.S. Army.  Upon completion of infantry training, Private Audie Murphy was sent to Morocco with the 3rd Infantry Division in February 1943. 

Audie Murphy 2nd from left, Co B, 1st Battalion, 
15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, US Army

Murphy saw significant combat as part of the Sicily campaign and, in September 1943, was in action during the invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno.  Murphy’s bravery and natural leadership on the battlefield led to promotion to full staff sergeant in January 1944, less than a year after his initial deployment as a buck private.  After the fall of Italy in June 1944, Sergeant Murphy participated in the invasion of Southern France, along the way receiving a number of combat citations for performance in battle.  He received the first of three Purple Hearts for a heel wound in September 1944, and then a second Purple Heart about six weeks later after being shot in the hip by a sniper (he shot the sniper between the eyes). 

In the cold of northeastern France during January 1945, recently promoted Lt. Murphy was leading a patrol in enemy occupied territory.  It was here, on January 25, 1945, that Audie Murphy displayed the ‘conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy, in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army’ that resulted in him being awarded the Medal of Honor.  The following is a description of his actions taken directly from his Medal of Honor citation. 

2d Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by 6 tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to prepared positions in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, 1 of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from 3 sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy's indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy's objective.”

When asked why he would take such bold and dangerous actions, Murphy responded, “They were killing my friends”. 

Medal of Honor award Ceremony

Following his recovery from his wounds now 1st Lt Murphy was reassigned to a staff position for the remainder of his tour of duty.  He received his discharge papers after VE Day on September 21, 1945.  During his less than three years as a combat soldier Audie Murphy had received every possible combat decoration possible in the army – some of them multiple times. 

A justifiable war hero, Audie Murphy returned to civilian life with no real idea of what to do next.  With the help of writer David McClure, Murphy published his wartime autobiography To Hell and Back in 1949.   Through the help of James Cagney, the untrained and under-educated veteran began a career in Hollywood, first appearing in bit rolls in minor films.  In 1951 Murphy got his first starring role in a major motion picture in John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s (who had been a soldier in the Civil War) The Red Badge of Courage.  In 1955 Audie Murphy had the unusual opportunity to play himself in a film version of his own autobiography.  Two Hell and Back was a huge hit, the biggest grossing film in the history of Universal Studios until Jaws in 1975.  All total, Audie Murphy appeared in forty films and a consistent stream of television shows over a twenty year Hollywood career.  He also had some success as a songwriter, with his song lyrics being recorded by the likes of Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold and Harry Nilsson.  Here's a short video of his 1955 appearance on What's My Line?

Audie Murphy as 'the Youth' in "Red Badge of Courage"

A recreated scene of Audie Murphy's Medal of Honor heroics in "To Hell and Back.
See the footage of Audie playing Audie Here

In perhaps one of his most heroic acts, in the 1960’s Audie Murphy began to speak about his struggles with what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He had been plagued by PTSD (then called combat fatigue or shell shock) ever since the war.  It was a taboo subject for the military, and to have the most decorated member of the Greatest Generation openly talk about his personal trials was unprecedented.  Murphy became an advocate for Korean and Vietnam veterans who struggled with PTSD, raising awareness and funding for improved medical treatment.  Murphy described his struggles, which included nightmares, insomnia, rage, gambling problems and a short addiction to sleeping pills this way,

"War is like a giant pack rat, it takes something from you and it leaves something behind in its stead. It burned me out in some ways so that now I feel like an old man but still sometimes act like a dumb kid. It made me grow up too fast. You live so much on nervous excitement that when it is over you fall apart."

Odd publicity shot of Murphy and family on the Peter Pan ride at
Audie Murphy in 1961

Audie Murphy in the late 1960's

On May 28, 1971 Audie Murphy was on a small plane with five other passengers that  crashed in zero visibility weather in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke, VA.  There were no survivors.  He was 45 years old.  Audie Murphy was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  Per his request his tombstone was not decorated with the customary gold emblem of a Medal of Honor winner.  He was just a soldier.  And that was enough. 

Marker where Audie Murphy's plane went
down near Roanoke, VA

Your blogger at Arlington November 2012

I first saw Audie Murphy's grave on the same seventh grade school patrol trip that first   took me to JFK’s grave.  I try to see it every time I go back.  

"People are very quick to ridicule others for showing fear. But we rarely know the secret springboards behind human action. The man who shows great fear today may be tomorrow's hero. Who are we to judge?"   
Audie Murphy