Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier in World War II, yet many Americans have never heard of him. That’s because most are too young to remember him or his war story or the many movies he made in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Today as we honor all our service men and women, we should not forget a hero like Audie Murphy.
I remember watching the handsome young cowboy in westerns and the civil war soldier in Red Badge of Courage. Stories about Audie’s combat heroism must have come from my parents who, like I try to do with my children and grandchildren, tried to explain what this actor had done during the war. He seemed too young and too handsome to have fought in the war much less be a hero. When I was older I watched “To Hell and Back,” the movie made from his combat autobiography. It’s a good war movie with Audie playing himself – the young boy from Texas who became an unlikely hero. That movie made me see him as a soldier who did what he had to do in combat, not expecting to survive much less be honored for his heroism.
Recently I kept a promise to myself by purchasing and reading the Audie Murphy’s book. “To Hell and Back” is an excellent and realistic account of a soldier’s war experiences. Published in 1949, the account began on the beaches of Sicily and ended on VE Day, the end of the war in Europe, when Audie accepted the fact that he was alive and going home. Yet he knew he would never be the same.
Audie had listened to stories of World War I and always wanted to be a soldier. He changed the date on his birth certificate to add a year so that when he turned seventeen he could join the military. After being turned down by the Marines and the Paratroopers (a new branch of the Army that sounded tough to Audie), he ended up in the Infantry. From a large, share-cropper family he’d worked in the fields from an early age so he thought he could do anything. Boot camp was harder than he expected and he struggled to make it through. His baby-face and youthful appearance prompted his commander to suggest he go to Cooks and Bakers School rather than remain in the Infantry. Determined to see combat, Audie refused the reassignment and continued to insist he be assigned to overseas combat. That landed him in North Africa as a replacement in March 1943 but too late to fight there.
The invasion of Sicily followed in July and gave Audie his first taste of combat. It wasn’t what he expected. Nothing glamorous, no man-to-man tests of bravery. Instead he found himself hitting the dirt to avoid shrapnel from artillery shells, trudging over dusty roads and seeing death delivered suddenly and unexpectedly. Attacks into withering machine gun fire where fellow soldiers crumpled while he had to continue the advance were sobering experiences. Soldiers from different backgrounds and locales forged bonds of friendship as they lived together, cursed the war and protected each other, making each death or injury heart wrenching.
Audie landed at Salerno, Italy, and fought his way up the Italian peninsula to Cassino. Pulled from the fighting, Audie’s outfit, the 3rd Division 15th Infantry regiment, trained for another landing. They went ashore at Anzio in January 1944. Months of relentless fighting followed, including thousands of casualties, before they reached Rome in June. Again Audie’s unit went into training, this time for a landing in southern France in August, 1944. They fought their way north pushing the Germans back toward Germany. In a particularly difficult series of battles against the Germans holding an area west of the Rhine river called the Comar Pocket, Audie’s heroic actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Audie Murphy was wounded three times in addition to contracting Malaria in Sicily. He received a “battlefield” commission in October, 1944. Earlier he had turned down the opportunity to go to Officers Candidate School because he felt he lacked the education needed. By the fall of 1944, experienced officers were badly needed. Audie’s natural leadership abilities and his combat experience made him an obvious choice.
After the war Audie made his way to Hollywood and became an actor. Among his credits are his own autobiographic war story “To Hell And Back,” “The Red Badge of Courage” (based on Stephen Crane’s story and including Bill Maudlin of WWII comic fame), and dozens of westerns including “Destry” and “The Unforgiven.” He made over 40 movies in his short life. Sadly, Audie died in a plane crash in 1971 at age 45.
The Audie L. Murphy Memorial website provides a wealth of information about Audie. I learned that he spoke out about PTSD in the 1960’s when the subject of mental problems of veterans was taboo. He spoke of his own problems and worked to get the government to acknowledge the problem and provide help for the veterans. There are pictures, details about all his medals and awards, a list of his movies, books about Audie and so much more.