I’m taking a timeout from my usual goofball self to pay tribute to one of the many veterans we’re honoring for Veterans Day on November 11th.
I’m grateful to all the brave men and women who have served and are serving our country, and I’d like to spotlight one of my favorites, a true underdog who rose above great odds to become a hero on many fronts in addition to his amazing feats during combat duty.
I’ve been fascinated with Audie Murphy’s story ever since I saw the movie “To Hell and Back” (1955) where he starred as himself. It’s based on his best-selling autobiography, written in 1949 with the same title. He oversaw the making of the movie and insisted on sticking to the facts, no fictionalizing. He even had them omit parts of his story, fearing people would think he was exaggerating the truth.
Audie Murphy was one of twelve children born to poor Texas share croppers (three siblings died before his birth). His father abandoned the family in 1936. At age ten, Audie dropped out of school and worked on farms picking cotton or plowing to help care for his five younger siblings. He also hunted small animals to put food on the table and became a sharp-shooter as a result.
His mother died in 1941 when Audie was only 16 years old. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist, but he was too short for the Marines at 5’5″, plus he only weighed 110 pounds. The Navy turned him down because he was too young.
In 1942 at age 16 or 17 (depending on the source), he enlisted in the Army, thanks to falsified documents which stated he was 18. The paratroopers didn’t want him because he was too small. After passing out during a drill in basic training, his commander wanted to send him to baker and cook school, but he insisted on combat duty. He finally became part of the 3rd Infantry Division, where his platoon members nicknamed him “Little Texas” and “Baby Face.” Little did they know that he would soon become a legend in their division.
Starting out as a private, he was quickly promoted through the ranks, from corporal, to staff sergeant, and up to 2nd Lieutenant. Audie Murphy cared about the men under his command and became known for his fierce revenge when one of them was killed.
At one point, Audie’s best friend Lattie Tipton was killed by a German in a machine-gun nest who had faked surrender by holding up a white flag. Audie went ballistic and charged them, single-handedly cutting them down, then used the German machine gun and grenades to wipe out two other enemy nests.
One of my favorite scenes in “To Hell and Back” is during the Battle of Holtzwihr in France, when Audie, the lone surviving officer, ordered his men to take cover in the woods. He climbed on top of a burning tank destroyer, a ticking time bomb. For an hour, he used the machine gun to hold off the enemy, now approaching from three sides. Some got as close as 10 yards from the destroyer before he gunned them down.
The Germans couldn’t figure out where the enemy fire was coming from. They never considered that anyone would be crazy enough to be on top of a flaming tank destroyer that was about to blow up.
When he ran out of ammo, Murphy abandoned the tank destroyer and at that point realized he’d been shot in the leg, but he refused treatment and planned a counter-attack to force the enemy back. That was one of three injuries he incurred during his service, in addition to suffering bouts of malaria.
For his heroics on the burning tank destroyer, Audie Murphy received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military award for bravery given by the United States of America.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Audie Murphy received 32 other awards, citations, and decorations, 27 from the United States of America, five from France, and one from Belgium. Most were received before age 20.
After the war, Audie was invited to Hollywood by James Cagney, but it was rough going with only bit parts. He was homeless and slept in a gymnasium. He finally caught a break in 1949 with the starring role in the movie “Bad Boy,” then went on to make 44 feature films, 33 of them westerns.
Audie Murphy also found success as a country music songwriter. “When the Wind Blows in Chicago” and “Shutters and Boards” were his biggest hits.
Back when post-traumatic stress disorder was known as “battle fatigue,” Audie Murphy was well aware of the scars the war had left on him: He suffered from nightmares, depression, and insomnia. His first wife claimed that he slept with a gun under his pillow.
He didn’t try to hide that fact that he suffered from the emotional effects of war. In the mid-1960s he faced the realization that he’d become addicted to prescription sleeping pills, so he locked himself in a motel room for a week to battle his addiction, suffering withdrawals until he was finally clean.
He openly talked about his fight with “battle fatigue” and the emotional impact war has on veterans, especially those returning from the Korean and Vietnam wars. He became an advocate for veterans and sought aid from the government to provide treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions and to conduct studies to better help veterans.
On May 28, 1971, Audie Murphy died in a plane crash at age 46. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery near the Amphitheater, and his grave site is the second-most visited grave. President John F. Kennedy’s grave site receives the most visitors per year.
Tombstones of Medal of Honor recipients are usually decorated in gold leaf, but Audie Murphy asked for his tombstone to remain plain and inconspicuous.
Here’s one of the poems he wrote:
Dusty Old Helmet
Here’s a link:
I think I’ll watch To Hell and Back. I haven’t seen it in many years. What a surprise to find the whole movie on YouTube!