The title of his famous autobiography, To Hell and Back, referred to his experiences in World War II, but it could just as easily have been about his childhood.
When Audie Leon Murphy was born in the cotton fields of Kingston, Texas in 1925, the small town was already on the decline. By age five, the town’s post office had closed, and his sharecropping family was moving around Hunt County in search of work. Murphy was the seventh of twelve children, and even at a young age, he was already picking cotton and hoeing beside his parents. According to his later accounts of this time in his life, “it was a full-time job just existing.”
The Murphy family was not alone in their suffering. His youth was spent in the throes of the Great Depression, followed by the harshness of the Dust Bowl, known colloquially as the “Dirty Thirties.” His father, Pat Murphy, was in and out of the family’s life, and permanently deserted the family when Murphy was just fifteen. This devastated his mother, and within the year, Josie Murphy died of endocarditis and pneumonia in 1941.
Murphy dropped out of school shortly before his father left, to help support the family. By the time his mother passed away, he was working at a radio repair shop as well as a combination general store, garage, and gas station in Greenville. Murphy’s resentment for his father ran deep, but he soon realized that his life’s path was already proving similar to his father’s. However, a surprise attack by the Japanese on the U.S. fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, would change his life forever.
Persist to Enlist
Like so many other eager young Americans, Murphy tried to enlist. But even with the need for soldiers, the military still was not accepting under-aged, underweight volunteers. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all turned him down for his youth and stature. Nothing could be done about his Irish baby face, but after changing his diet to bulk up as much as possible, one of his sisters swore out an affidavit that falsified Murphy’s birth date. Taking his word that he was actually eighteen instead of seventeen, the U.S. Army accepted him on the last day of June 1942 and shipped him out for basic training at Camp Wolters.
The Mediterranean Theater
French Morocco and Algiers were Murphy’s first assignments, where he was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division. In Algiers, Murphy’s division trained for an amphibious landing on the island of Sicily. During this campaign, he began to compile his impressive service record. Murphy’s ancestry, personality, and life experiences seemingly combined to give him the precise mix of both derring-do and caution he would need to survive and excel as a soldier.
Like most young men in war, it did not take long for Murphy to figure out that the war did not live up to the hype of the posters and propaganda films. According to Murphy’s autobiography, To Hell and Back, “ten seconds after the first shot was fired at me by an enemy soldier, combat was no longer glamorous.” He would later recall, “but it was important because all of a sudden I wanted very much to stay alive…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.”
Near Anzio, Italy, Staff Sergeant Murphy and his men occupied a damaged farmhouse that allowed them to observe an enemy approach from the road. From the edifice, the Americans were able to observe, the only real means of approach for any of the Axis forces’ heavy equipment because of the muddy conditions of the area.
On March 1, 1943, Murphy and his men observed 20 German tanks lumbering toward them, searching for weak spots in the American defenses. Murphy used an Army landline to call for artillery support, repeatedly giving revised coordinates until the lead tank was taken out, thus barricading the road.
The remaining tanks were unable to move off-road and circumnavigate the damaged tank, so they retreated. Murphy and his men were tasked with destroying the tank before a returning German crew could repair or remove it. That night, Murphy hand-selected a few soldiers and cautiously approached the tank in the dark. He ordered the men to stay in place, about 200 yards from the vehicle while he crawled closer to the tank and threw a grenade into its open hatch. As the Germans heard the explosion and began attacking, Murphy fired six grenades from his grenade launcher, destroying both treads on the tank. He then retreated posthaste by sprinting down the muddy ditch as the Germans unloaded on him.
For his efforts, Murphy earned the first of two Bronze Stars he would receive during the war. These medals were just the tip of the iceberg for the young Texan, who was at that time completely absorbed with carrying out his mission, protecting his men, and coming home alive. He received two more awards in May upon completion of additional combat training at Torre Asturia: the Combat Infantryman Badge, which distinguished him from soldiers who had not been under fire; and the 1st Oak Leaf Cluster to the Bronze Star Medal, which is awarded for “exemplary conduct in ground combat against an armed enemy.”
The European Theater
Murphy further distinguished himself on the front lines as the 3rd Division landed on the coast of southern France to begin pushing north along the country’s eastern border. On this French battlefield, Audie Murphy’s story begins to read like the script of an action movie.
On August 15, 1944, Murphy encountered a hill dotted with German machine-gun nests that were protecting a big gun aimed at the coast. He single-handedly forged up the hill, systematically destroying the nests along the way. Murphy’s best friend in the unit joined him, and the two engaged enemy troops in a heated shootout. In a sad instance of battlefield trickery, the Germans signaled a fake surrender. Murphy’s friend rose to accept the surrender and was immediately gunned down. This was a fatal mistake for the Germans, as Murphy instantly exterminated the enemy, charged up the hill, and took out another machine-gun nest, clearing the area for the Allies. His heroism earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. Army medal for valor. By this point, Murphy was a seasoned veteran, despite his young age, and often volunteered for dangerous assignments.
As the 3rd Division moved into eastern France during the fall of 1944, Murphy’s decoration increased, as he twice earned Silver Stars, one for saving his commanding officer and another for extinguishing a machine-gun and sniper nest. These heroics earned him a promotion to second lieutenant, a promotion he had previously turned down, but eventually accepted on the condition that he could remain with his men.
Despite the accolades, Murphy was not immune to setbacks. After a sniper shot struck him in October 1944, Murphy was pinned down for three days before he could be evacuated to the hospital. When he finally made it out, gangrene had set into the wound, and he spent the next two months recuperating. By mid-January of 1945, he was back with his company, slugging it out with the Germans in the midst of a bitter winter. As if war were not harsh enough, the conditions provided the harshest of settings for Audie Murphy’s most courageous act of war.
The Colmar Offensive was designed to dislodge the Germans from their last foothold on French soil. The task of the 3rd Division was to advance near the Bois de Riedwihr, a large forest that stretched between two heavily fortified villages. The division’s 30th Regiment had taken the woods on January 23rd, only to be cut to shreds and forced to withdraw due to lack of ground cover. Murphy’s 15th Regiment was ordered in the following day.
To reclaim their lost ground, the Germans advanced toward the wood line, which was defended by Murphy, who had assumed command earlier in the day. He had only eighteen men left from his B Company. At their disposal were two poorly armed tanks, no match for vastly superior enemy armor. Each tank had only a 3-inch M7 anti-armor gun tube and a single .50 caliber machine gun. No other fire support except artillery was available to assist them.
Almost instantly, an 88-millimeter German gun scored a direct hit on one of the tanks, the other was soon taken out, and the enemy began to overtake the Americans’ position. Murphy ordered his protesting men to withdraw while he stayed behind to direct artillery fire using an army landline. Murphy later recalled in his autobiography, “It was not a heroic act. I figured if one man could do the job, why risk the lives of others.”
Murphy left his position, took the portable wire-connected telephone with him, and climbed on one of the burning tank destroyers. The flames and smoke created a ticking time bomb, but they also provided camouflage for Murphy, allowing him to access its machine gun. On the phone, Murphy began calling in the positions of the Germans, and the American artillery rained fire directly on top of their advance.
The Germans eventually advanced to within 50 yards of Murphy’s position on the tank when battalion headquarters asked him about the enemy’s position. Murphy reportedly replied, “If you just hold the phone a minute, I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.” The field telephone stopped working, most likely because the line was cut or destroyed. Nearing the point of exhaustion, Murphy unloaded on the unsuspecting enemy, who could not even tell who was firing on them, or from which direction the fire was coming. While atop the burning tank, the vehicle took two direct hits from the 88-millimeter German shells. The explosions briefly stunned Murphy and reopened his previous shrapnel wound, but that was the extent of their damage. He maintained his position for nearly an hour of extreme battle. When the German tanks began to withdraw, Murphy had killed about 50 German infantrymen and destroyed several enemy tanks. He had almost single-handedly defeated the German advance.
A few months later, just shy of his 20th birthday, Audie Murphy received the nation’s highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor. Additionally, along with the Bronze and Silver Stars, he also earned three Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Legion of Merit. In all, the young soldier had earned 37 medals, 11 of which were awards for valor, making him the most decorated American soldier during World War II. He arrived back home to parades, speeches, banquets, and his face on the cover of magazines, including the July 15, 1945, cover of Life Magazine. He was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant, at a 50 percent disability classification, and transferred to the Officers’ Reserve Corps.
Post War Life
Murphy’s enormous popularity with the American public was matched by the vicious onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While the term PTSD was not officially used until much more recently, at that time, the symptoms were commonly referred to as Combat Stress Reaction or Combat Exhaustion. For years, he struggled to find his place in the new post-war era. Decades later, during a 1963 Veteran’s Day interview, Murphy recalled his most memorable moment of the war: “I was only in service for about three years, but I can assure you, it felt much longer…I think I’d have to say the greatest thing that ever happened to me was not as a sergeant, but as a second lieutenant…or was it first lieutenant? I’ve tried to forget all these things, you see….I heard that the war in Europe was over. There’s nothing that could top that for me….I started thinking about home again, which we didn’t dare think of before…suddenly I was a little frightened, strange as it may seem, and I didn’t know what I would do when I got home, and I suddenly felt just a little empty inside, and a little lonely about the whole thing. Although I was very happy that the war was over, I suddenly didn’t feel that I had a home.”
His search for his new place in the world was not easy. His PTSD led to insomnia and bouts of depression, and he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A 1947 doctor’s examination noted Murphy’s headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about war. His medical records indicated that he took sleeping pills to help prevent nightmares, and he became dependent on Placidyl. To Murphy’s credit, he recognized his own addiction, and in the mid-1960s, locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to break his need for the medication successfully. The PTSD spurred on his melancholy attitude and moodiness, worrying his friends and family. Reports from his first wife during these dark days revealed the depths of Murphy’s struggle. Actions that were uncharacteristic and erratic intermixed with bouts of grief and guilt when war memories overcame him. Perhaps his bravest season of life was this postwar era in which he daily dealt with his own PTSD.
After seeing Murphy on the cover of Life Magazine, actor and producer James Cagney actively recruited him. Cagney paid Murphy’s way to Hollywood and took the fragile young man into his own home, and even provided him with acting and dance lessons. However, Murphy never appeared in a Cagney production.
His first lead role was in the 1949 film Bad Boy, financed by Texas theater owners who insisted on starring Murphy. Universal Studios signed him, and he starred in a number of westerns, playing lead roles that included Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and The Cimmaron Kid. On loan to MGM, Murphy starred as “The Youth” in John Huston’s film adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage. Murphy took his film career seriously; he honed his ability to “fast draw” a gun, took additional acting lessons, and rehearsed his diction by reciting Shakespeare.
His biggest role came with the 1955 film, To Hell and Back, an adaptation of Murphy’s own best-selling autobiography, ghost written by McClure. Under protest, Murphy played himself in the film. At the age of 31, he was able to convincingly portray himself as a teenager. The film was immensely successful, both critically and financially, earning Murphy a $1 million dollar payout. He instantly became highly sought-after and made some 49 films in an acting career that lasted until his final film, A Time For Dying, in 1969.
A Different Role: Family Man
Even as he established his post-military career in Hollywood, Murphy began to think, as young men do, about getting married. While he married actress Wanda Hendrix during a stressful period in 1949, the marriage did not last. After the couple’s divorce in 1951, he married Pamela Archer, with whom he had two sons. His boys, Terry and Skipper Murphy, played small roles in some of Murphy’s films.
He also began breeding quarter horses at the Audie Murphy Ranch in California and at the Murphy Ranch in Arizona. But his penchant for gambling on horse races set him down a path of bad business decisions that occurred over the span of several years.
Despite his financial woes, Murphy was resolute in his refusal to appear in commercials for alcohol and cigarettes. An act of remarkable character, he would not accept these endorsements because he felt his image associated with liquor and tobacco might have a negative influence on America’s vulnerable youth.
Murphy’s Untimely Death
Amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the story of Audie Murphy’s untimely death at the young age of 45 received relatively little coverage, especially in comparison to the previous media accolades lavished on Murphy at the end of World War II.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy and a group of associates boarded a plane he co-owned, headed from Georgia to Virginia. The pilot was not rated for instrument flight, and conditions were poor. The plane crashed in the mountains near Catawba, Virginia, killing all five passengers and the pilot. Walter Cronkite reported the death on the evening news, saying: “America’s most decorated soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy, used to refer modestly to himself as a fugitive from the law of averages. Now it appears the law of averages has caught up with Audie Murphy.”
Murphy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. It is customary for Medal of Honor recipients to have their headstones adorned with gold leaf; however, Murphy had previously requested that his headstone remain unadorned, like those of the men with whom he served.
Today, Audie Murphy is remembered across the country, but Texans remain especially fond of their homegrown hero. A painting of a beribboned Audie Murphy hangs proudly in the House Chamber of the Texas State Capitol. Numerous facilities are named for him, including The Audie Murphy American Cotton Museum (Hunt County, TX), Audie Murphy Middle School (Killeen, TX), the Audie Murphy Memorial (Brush County, VA), the Audie Murphy Inn (Bosnia), and the Audie L. Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital (San Antonio, TX). A commemorative Audie Murphy stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2000, and in 2012, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, traveled to Hunt County to posthumously present the state’s highest award: the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor.
Many details, historical documents, and photographs pertaining to Audie Murphy’s life are available at audiemurphy.com, the official website of the Audie Murphy Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to keeping the memory of one the bravest Texans alive for future generations.