Born near Kingston, Texas, Audie Murphy (1924-1971) won fame as the most decorated soldier in U.S. military history.
During World War II and for many years afterward, Audie Murphy personified heroism on the battlefield. His death-defying exploits were the stuff of legend, but to many Americans Murphy is a virtual unknown. As Don Graham observed in his biography of Murphy, "we prefer video fantasy-Rambo-a kind of MTV celebration of American machismo…. [But] Audie Murphy was the real thing…. And the real thing is always more interesting."
Audie Leon Murphy, the seventh of twelve children of Emmett "Pat, " a sharecropper, and Josie Murphy, was born June 20, 1924, in a Texas cotton field. Leon, as Audie was known until he went into the army, had chores to do at an early age, and when he was five years old, he was hoeing and picking cotton alongside his parents and siblings. There was no time for play and not much time for school, either. Murphy recalled years later, "It was a full-time job just existing."
Yet nearly everyone who knew Murphy during his childhood noted his intelligence and his determination to "be somebody." He loved to read and enjoyed listening to his uncles recount their experiences in World War I. To Murphy, it all seemed very glamorous and exciting.
In 1939, at the age of fifteen, Murphy dropped out of school for good and left home to seek work that would help the family. He held a series of low-paying odd jobs. Then, in 1940, his father walked out on the family, leaving them in dire straits. This turn of events took a heavy toll on Murphy's mother, and in May 1941, she died.
Murphy was devastated by his mother's death and bitterly resented his father. As he looked at his own life, however, he realized that he was headed down a similar path. His lack of education and opportunity meant that he would probably never be able to escape the poverty that had entrapped his family.
A war got Murphy out of Texas. Less than seven months after his mother died, the United States entered World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Like so many other eager young men, seventeen year old Murphy tried to enlist in the military. But at only 5'5" tall and 112 pounds, the baby-faced teenager (who looked even younger) was rejected by both the marines and the army because of his age. He tried again after he turned eighteen. The marines still weren't interested, but on June 30, 1942, he was officially inducted into the army and immediately sent to boot camp for combat infantry training. There he excelled at marksmanship and quickly developed into a well-disciplined soldier.
In late January 1943, Murphy shipped out to North Africa. Assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, he was sent to the island of Sicily on July 10. It was there that he began to compile his remarkable service record. Aggressive and audacious, yet levelheaded, Murphy proved to be the ideal soldier.
Murphy quickly discovered that war was not quite what he had expected it to be. "Ten seconds after the first shot was fired at me by an enemy soldier, combat was no longer glamorous, " he later observed. "But it was important, because all of a sudden I wanted very much to stay alive." Fear was always beside him, and he could sometimes feel his insides twist into knots. But as Murphy noted after the war, "Sometimes it takes more courage to get up and run than to stay. You either just do it or you don't. I got so scared the first day in combat I just decided to go along with it."
Murphy and his battalion headed north through Sicily. Their first enemy encounters were with Italian troops who proved to be easy to subdue. Then they came face-to-face with tougher and well-trained German soldiers. From his experiences in Sicily he gained what he termed "a healthy respect" for his German counterparts. By mid-August of 1943, however, Sicily was in Allied hands.
After a brief rest period near Naples in late November and early December of 1943, the 3rd Division received its next orders, an amphibious landing at Anzio, to be followed by a quick thrust north to Rome. Murphy missed the actual landing but he rejoined his division as they waited on the beachhead for reinforcements. The delay proved costly, however; within days, the Germans had moved some 125, 000 troops into position.
The Germans showered Allied ground troops with artillery fire, but nineteen year old Murphy distinguished himself when he stepped up to lead his men after his company commander was wounded. However, the Allies were no match for the Germans, and they were finally forced to retreat. They took refuge in cold, muddy foxholes and trenches for some five months while under constant fire. Meanwhile, Murphy was promoted to platoon leader.
Murphy earned his first medal, the Bronze Star, in March of 1944 for singlehandedly knocking out a German tank. He received two more awards in May, the Combat Infantryman Badge, which set him apart from soldiers who had not been under fire, and the 1st Oak Leaf Cluster to the Bronze Star Medal, which recognized his "exemplary conduct in ground combat against an armed enemy."
The 3rd Division's next assignment was to land on the coast of southern France to start driving north along the country's eastern border. Beginning August 15, 1944, the story of Murphy's exploits becomes "simply incredible, " to quote his biographer.
Murphy encountered a hill dotted with German machine-gun nests that were protecting a big gun aimed at the coast. He headed up the hill alone, methodically destroying several of the machine-gun nests along the way. Suddenly, his best friend in the unit appeared at his side and insisted on staying with him. Then, as Murphy and his buddy engaged enemy troops in a gun battle, the Germans indicated they were ready to surrender. Murphy was suspicious, but his friend stood up to acknowledge the gesture and was immediately gunned down. In a burst of fury, Murphy killed the Germans who had shot his friend and continued on his rampage up the hill, taking out another machine-gun nest and eventually securing the area for the Allies. For his actions, he won the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. Army medal for valor.
From then on, Murphy absolutely craved action and sought it out whenever and wherever possible. He astounded his fellow soldiers by volunteering for one dangerous assignment after another; he was especially adept at stalking and killing snipers. On September 15, 1944, he was wounded for the first time, but after just a few days in the hospital for treatment, he was back on the front lines. Offered a promotion to second lieutenant in the wake of his heroics, Murphy turned it down, expressing embarrassment about his lack of formal education and indicating his desire to remain with the men he had fought with for so long.
In eastern France during the fall of 1944, Murphy earned two Silver Stars. The first was for saving his commanding officer. His second was awarded for actions he took to destroy a well-camouflaged machine-gun and sniper outpost. In the end, Murphy received a promotion to second lieutenant, which he accepted on the condition that he could remain with his company.
Murphy was wounded for a second time on October 26, 1944, when a shot from a sniper glanced off a tree and struck him. Three days passed before he could be evacuated, and by the time he made it to the hospital, the wound had become gangrenous. He spent the next two months out of action, but was back on the front lines by mid-January of 1945, during the coldest and snowiest winter Europe had seen in twenty-five years.
When Murphy rejoined his regiment, it was preparing to clear the Germans out of a much-disputed territory on the border of Germany and France. The task proved to be an arduous one; American ground troops were ill-equipped to endure the harsh weather. Meanwhile, Murphy sustained his third war wound. The injury did not require medical attention, so he kept fighting. He was placed in command of Company B after its first lieutenant was badly wounded. With that, Murphy became the sole officer in a company that had once numbered over 200 men but was now down to only 18.
On January 26, 1945, Murphy's courage under fire earned him the nation's highest honor for personal bravery and self-sacrifice in combat, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Murphy and his men were ordered to take up a position and hold it. Less than two dozen Americans protected by two tank destroyers then squared off against some 200 enemy soldiers backed up by six tanks. In the opening minutes of the battle, Company B's machine-gun squad was wiped out, one of its tank destroyers slid into a ditch and had to be abandoned, and the other tank destroyer was hit by artillery fire. Murphy figured the end was near as he realized how outnumbered he and his men were.
Ordering his men to retreat, Murphy stayed and directed artillery fire into the area while emptying his gun at the advancing Germans. He then spotted the burning tank destroyer about ten yards away and noticed that its machine gun appeared to be undamaged. He ran over, jumped on the tank destroyer's turret, and started firing the machine gun as he continued to direct the ongoing artillery barrage. He kept up this attack on his own for at least thirty minutes and perhaps as long as an hour, killing or wounding some fifty enemy soldiers. Finally, the Germans were forced to withdraw. After being knocked unconscious momentarily, Murphy came to and started walking, weak, exhausted, and in a bit of a daze, but miraculously unscathed except for a slight reinjury to his legs. From a distance, he heard the tank destroyer explode.
Murphy then threw himself back into battle, hammering at the Germans as they retreated east toward the Rhine River. By February, most of the enemy forces that were still west of the Rhine had surrendered. This gave the 3rd Division some time to relax a bit, followed by another couple of weeks of rest well behind the lines. During this period, Murphy was promoted to first lieutenant. At the end of the month, training began for an invasion of Germany.
Murphy did not join his men on the front lines this time. To keep him out of combat, his superiors had assigned him to serve as a liaison officer with the 15th Infantry. (The Army did not want to see one of its Congressional Medal of Honor winners die in battle.) Murphy nevertheless managed to involve himself in some dangerous situations from time to time, including one instance in which he raced to the front lines to lead his beloved Company B out of danger.
Murphy spent the remaining weeks of the war engaging in similar operations that suited his taste for action and thrills. The end of the conflict found him on a train to the French Riviera, where he had hoped to enjoy a little rest and relaxation before resuming command of Company B at its headquarters just outside Salzburg, Austria. It was there that Murphy officially received his Congressional Medal of Honor on June 2, 1945, a few weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday. The ceremony capped a truly remarkable two years that saw him become the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. Murphy was ultimately awarded a total of thirty-seven medals, eleven of which were for valor.
Murphy returned to the United States a larger-than-life hero, a shy Texan whose smiling face adorned the covers of news magazines. He marched in victory parades and made personal appearances before cheering crowds. Yet Murphy's postwar life was notable for its modest successes and major troubles. Restless, he couldn't seem to find his niche and took little pleasure in an ordinary existence. In late 1945, he headed to Hollywood to pursue a film career. Although he appeared in a string of low-budget westerns and war movies over a twenty-year period, he turned in only a couple of truly noteworthy performances. In 1951, he played a young Civil War soldier in The Red Badge of Courage that garnered him his best reviews. Four years later, in 1955, he played himself in the movie version of his autobiography, To Hell and Back, which proved to be a hit with critics and at the box office. In the early 1960s, he dabbled in songwriting and produced a number of country-western tunes.
Murphy's personal life was also unsettled. Plagued by recurring nightmares, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow for many years. He suffered tremendous guilt about the war and agonized over friends who never made it back. He became hooked on prescription drugs. Gambling, womanizing, and involvement in various business schemes caused him to lose most of his money. By the late 1960s, Murphy's many setbacks had left him bankrupt. One of the lowest points in his life came in 1970 when he was charged with assault after he beat up a man and fired a shot at him during an argument. He was eventually acquitted, but the negative publicity generated by the case proved tough to live down.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy died along with five others in a plane crash while on a business trip. In a ceremony befitting the hero that he had once been, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Yet his passing went almost unnoticed by the media. To a nation that was torn by the Vietnam War, there was little respect for the kind of traditional military valor that a soldier like Murphy represented.
Further Reading on Audie Murphy
Graham, Don, No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, Viking, 1989.
Murphy, Audie, To Hell and Back, Henry Holt, 1949.
Whiting, Charles, Hero: The Life and Death of Audie Murphy, Stein & Day, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1996.
New York Times, June 1, 1971.
Texas Monthly, June 1989.