Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. Murphy lied about his age to enlist in the army and by the time he was 19, had been awarded every major medal for valor of the United States as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. On January 26, 1945, Murphy, then a 2LT after a battlefield promotion, single-handedly held off a German company in the Colmar Pocket, then led a counter-attack while wounded and nearly out of ammunition. For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Murphy would later become a film star and played himself in the autobiographical “To Hell and Back.” He also became known as a western hero in a movie career that would last 21 years. Due to his war-time heroics and extensive battle experiences, he would be plagued by what we call today, PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) where he slept with a gun under his pillow and sleeplessness would plague him, along with an addiction to sleeping pills for the rest of his life. He died tragically in a plane crash in 1971. He was only 45 years old.
Humble Beginnings: Murphy was born on June 20, 1925, in Kingston, Texas as the seventh of 12 children. His parents were sharecroppers but his father would frequently leave the family before disappearing for good when he was still a young child. He was forced to quit school in fifth grade and picked cotton for a dollar a day to help feed the family. He became adept at hunting small game which helped put food on the table as well.
Murphy’s mother died just before his 16th birthday in 1941, and his three youngest siblings were put into an orphanage. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, he tried to enlist in both the Army and Marines but was rejected for being both underage and underweight. His older sister helped forge his birth certificate and signed an affidavit where he was finally accepted into the Army on June 30, 1942, and was sent to Camp Wolters for Basic Training. He was just 16 years old.
Military Service and World War II: After his basic training, Murphy was shipped to Fort Meade, MD for advanced infantry training. From there in late February 1943 he was shipped out to Casablanca, Morocco as part of B Company, 1st Bn. 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. He was assigned as the platoon messenger. The division trained hard for the upcoming invasion of Sicily. Murphy was promoted to PFC and then CPL on 15 July just five days after the invasion of the Italian island at Licata.
As a division runner, Murphy was with the division as they fought across Sicily, into the ancient city of Palermo and finally on to Messina where they closed the door on the German’s withdrawal.
He took part in the Salerno landings on mainland Italy at Battipaglia. He and another soldier broke up a German ambush by killing five of the enemy. The fighting in Italy raged thru the autumn and Murphy was promoted to Sergeant in December 1943. Less than a month later he was promoted again to Staff Sergeant in January 1944.
After the landing at Anzio, Murphy took part in the Battle of Cisterna where the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions were annihilated due to faulty intelligence and poor planning by the Corps Commander.MG Lucas. The Anzio landings were virtually unopposed and caught the Germans by surprise. But Lucas rather than press home his advantage grew timid and opted to consolidate his own beachhead rather than flank the Germans, which was the reason for the landing. By the time he moved, the Germans were ready and a three Ranger Battalion force supporting the 3rd Division was virtually wiped out. Murphy was made a platoon sergeant after the battle. He hadn’t yet turned 19 years old.
Holding up in an abandoned farmhouse, Murphy destroyed a German tank with rifle grenades and killed the crew. For that, he was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device. The Americans took Rome on June 4, and the 3rd Division remained there thru July awaiting orders. They didn’t have long to wait.
Murphy and the division took part in Southern France and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for actions taken on August 15, 1944. Murphy’s platoon was fighting through a vineyard when the men were attacked by German soldiers. Murphy grabbed a machine gun, returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Two Germans exited a house about 100 yards away and asked to surrender.
Murphy’s best friend responded and as he moved forward to take them, prisoner, they shot and killed him. Murphy advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He killed six, wounded two more and amazingly after what happened to his friend, took 11 prisoners. The 1st Bn. received a Presidential Unit Citation for their fighting around Montélimar.
He received a Purple Heart from mortar shrapnel in September. Murphy’s Silver Star medal was for his action in charging a German machine gun position where he killed four and wounded three more in neutralizing the threat to his men. He received a Bronze Leaf on his Silver Star when crawled up a hill and directed fire against the Germans while under constant, direct fire. His actions resulted in 15 killed enemy and 35 wounded.
On the 14th of October and less than four months after his 19th birthday, Murphy was given a battlefield promotion to 2nd Lieutenant. He was wounded for the 2nd time on October 26, when he captured two Germans before being shot thru the hip by a sniper. He returned fire, shooting the sniper right between his eyes. His wound would keep him out of action until January.
He was wounded in both legs in mid-January after rejoining his troops in the fighting around Holtzwihr.On January 26, he became the Company Commander of B Co. On that day as they were attacking the German positions, an M-10 Tank Destroyer supporting the infantry was hit and set afire.
While ordering the company to retreat to the woodline, he remained at the flaming M-10, firing his M-1 Carbine and calling in fire on the German troops. The entire time Murphy was in full view of the Germans and they were pouring fire in his direction.
Then he did the unimaginable. Murphy climbed up on top of the burning tank destroyer and mounting the .50 caliber machine gun, he poured fire at the German troops. The enemy sent a squad crawling up a ditch trying to get to him but he saw them and cut them all down. He stood alone, on a flaming open-topped tank destroyer for an hour with German infantry and tanks advancing and pouring fire at him.
He killed or wounded 50 of the attacking enemy. The Germans finally wounded him in the leg, but he remained on the TD until he ran out of ammunition. He then made his way back to his men and refused medical evacuation until he personally led them back to push the Germans back.
For this incredible action, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was promoted to First Lieutenant and moved off the line and into a Regimental Headquarters slot as a liaison officer.
Awards and Decorations: Murphy was awarded the American Campaign Medal, the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with arrowhead device and 9 campaign stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Army of Occupation Medal with Germany Clasp. France recognized his service with the French Legion of Honor – Grade of Chevalier,the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, the French Liberation Medal and the French Fourragère in Colors of the Croix de Guerre,which was authorized for all members of the 3rd Infantry Division who fought in France during World War II. Belgium awarded Murphy the Belgian Croix de Guerre with 1940 Palm
At Salzburg, Austria on 2 June 1945, Lieutenant General A.M. Patch, Commander of the 7th Army presented Murphy with the Medal of Honor and Legion of Merit for his actions at Holtzwihr. When asked after the war why he had seized the machine gun and taken on an entire company of German infantry, he replied, “They were killing my friends.”
Postwar: Murphy suffered from what we now call PTSD, or what was referred to then as Battle Fatigue or Shell Shock. He spoke to the Veterans Administration about it. In an effort to ease the strain on returning Vietnam veterans, he spoke candidly about his own problems and called on the government to give increased consideration and study to the emotional impact of combat experiences and to extend health care benefits to war veterans.
Film Career: Murphy launched a 21-year career as a film star being active from 1948-1969. He was known mainly for his westerns but he later played himself in the autobiographical “To Hell and Back.” That film became the biggest hit in Universal’s history at that time. He later raised quarter horses at his ranch but fell on hard financial times.
He was killed in a plane crash in Virginia in 1971 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His gravesite across from the amphitheater is one of the most visited other than JFK’s.
Photos: US Archives