U.S. War Heroes: Audie Murphy Goes From Frail Farm Boy To America’s Most Decorated Soldier In World War II

Leading up to Memorial Day we’ll spend some time reflecting and celebrating the lives of some of the greatest war heroes in U.S. history. Today we honor Audie Murphy, legendary member of the United States Army who served during World War II.

Audie Murphy was born a poor farm boy from Kingston, Texas. However, before the age of 21, he would fight in crucial and punishing campaigns in Italy, France and Germany at the height of World War II. This young man left his mark on the deadliest conflict in human history and was said to have killed, captured, or wounded 240 Nazi Germans. From his humble beginnings, he rose through the ranks to become America’s most decorated soldiers, having been awarded 21 medals, including our highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Audie was the seventh of 12 children. His father left when he was young, and Audie dropped out of school in 5th grade to support the family by picking cotton. His mother died in May of 1941 when he was 16, and he lived with his older sister while some of his siblings were sent to an orphanage.

Then on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrusted into World War II when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Murphy was compelled to enlist in the military to help defeat the Axis Powers, but he was underage, short and slim. He stood at only 5’5″ tall and 112 pounds due to a lack of food. Murphy had his sister write a letter alleging that he was a year older than he was and he was accepted into the U.S. Army.

Murphy went through basic training and his company commander thought he was too frail for combat and recommended that Audie be a cook. But again, Audie persevered and was able to persuade his commander that he was an infantryman. It definitely helped that he earned expert badge with the bayonet and marksman badge with the riffle thanks to his days of hunting to feed his family when he was young.

On February 20, 1943, Murphy was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division and shipped out to Casablanca in Morocco. He then went to Algeria where he received training for the upcoming Allied assault landings in Sicily, Italy. Murphy was promoted to private first class on May 7.

The 3rd Infantry landed at Licata, Sicily, on 10 July, where Murphy was a division runner.

“Ten seconds after the first shot was fired at me by an enemy soldier, combat was no longer glamorous,” he said in his 1949 autobiography To Hell And Back, which was co-wrote with journalist and friend David McClure. “But it was important, because all of a sudden I wanted very much to stay alive.”

Murphy’s first adversaries that he killed were two Italian officers who were fleeing the battle on horseback.

“Sometimes it takes more courage to get up and run than to stay,” Audie wrote. “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.”

He was promoted to corporal on July 15.

In early December of 1943, the 3rd Division were given orders of an amphibious landing at Anzio, Italy against German installments in a mission known as Operation Shingle. The move was to outflank German forces at the Winter Line and then take Rome.

On January 22, 1944, the U.S. 3rd and British 1st Infantry divisions made their amphibious landing, but the Germans were ready and showered the Allied forces with artillery fire. After his company commander was wounded, the 19-year-old Murphy stepped up to lead his men into battle. The Allies took a bloody loss, and even Winston Churchill commented on the monumental defeat, “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”

The Allies retreated to muddy foxholes and trenches for five months while under constant fire.

In September 1943, Murphy was part of the amphibious landing at Salerno, Italy.

While on a scouting party along the Volturno River, he and two other soldiers were ambushed by German machine-gun fire, which killed one of the Americans. Murphy and the other survivor responded by killing five German soldiers with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. While taking part in the October Allied assault on the Volturno Line, near Mignano Monte Lungo Hill 193, he and his company repelled an attack by seven German soldiers, killing three and taking four prisoners. Murphy was promoted to sergeant on 13 December.

In March of 1944, Murphy’s troop was under fire, so he snuck up to a German tank and blew it up with a rifle grenade. The brave attack earned him his first medal, a Bronze Star. Then in May, he was honored with two more awards, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster. On June 4, American forces liberated Rome.

By this time Murphy had garnered a reputation for being a brazen soldier who would do anything and everything to defeat the enemy. He detailed his philosophy on audacity in his book:

“If I discovered one valuable thing during my early combat days, it was audacity, which is often mistaken for courage or foolishness. It is neither. Audacity is a tactical weapon. Nine times out of ten it will throw the enemy off-balance and confuse him. In the heat of battle it may go away. Sometimes it vanishes in a blind, red rage that comes when you see a friend fall. Then again you get so tired that you become indifferent. But when you are moving into combat, why try fooling yourself? Fear is right there beside you.”

On August 15, 1944, the 3rd Division received orders to land on the coast of southern France and push the Nazis north along, called Operation Dragoon. Murphy, now a sergeant, stormed the Yellow Beach near Ramatuelle, France.

The hills overlooking the coast were armed with German machine-gun nests that were protecting a large artillery gun. Murphy wasn’t about to let his men get slaughtered on that beach.

From Military Times:

Leaving his men in a covered position, he dashed forty yards through withering fire to a draw. Using this defiladed route, he went back toward the beaches, found a light machine gun squad and, returning up the rocky hill, placed the machine gun in position seventy-five yards in advance of his platoon. In the duel which ensued, Lieutenant Murphy silenced the enemy weapon, killed two of the crew and wounded a third. As he proceeded further up the draw, two Germans advanced toward him. Quickly destroying both of them, he dashed up the draw alone toward the enemy strongpoint, disregarding bullets which glanced off the rocks around him and hand grenades which exploded fifteen yards away. Closing in, he wounded two Germans with carbine fire, killed two more in a fierce, brief fire-fight, and forced the remaining five to surrender.

Two Germans exited a house and offered to surrender. Private Lattie Tipton, a 33-year-old Tennessean who had become Murphy’s closest friend and a father figure, went to secure them and they shot him dead. Seeing his friend gunned down in cold blood enraged Murphy. He charged towards the house even though he was under direct fire. He continued on his vengeful rampage up the hill, taking out another machine-gun nest. When it was all said and done Murphy had singlehandedly killed six Nazi soldiers, wounded two and took 11 as prisoners and helped secure the area for the Allies. For his heroism, Murphy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. Army medal for valor. Sadly, Murphy’s division suffered 4,500 casualties during this campaign.

On September 15, 1944, Audie was wounded for the first time, injured by a mortar shell blast in northeastern France. After just a few days in the hospital, he was back on the front lines. That is how Murphy earned his first Purple Heart.

On January 26, 1945, Lt. Murphy and his men were told to take and hold the town of Holtzwihr, France. Murphy had less than two dozen Americans and two tank destroyers and were up against about 250 infantrymen and six Panzer tanks. In the opening minutes of the battle Company B’s machine-gun squad was destroyed, a tank destroyer slid into a ditch and the other tank destroyer was hit by artillery fire. This appeared to be the end for Audie. He ordered his men to retreat, but he stayed to direct artillery fire.

“The nerves will relax, the heart, stop its thumping,” Murphy wrote. “The brain will turn to animal cunning. The job is directly before us: destroy and survive.”

Murphy, still only 19-years-old at the time, noticed that the machine gun on the burning tank destroyer appeared to be undamaged. He manned the destroyer’s .50-caliber machine gun turret and began firing at the overwhelming enemy that was inching forward despite the tank was engulfed in flames.

“I am conscious only that the smoke and the turret afford a good screen, and that, for the first time in three days, my feet are warm,” Murphy said of the battle.

The Germans attempted a flanking maneuver on his right side, but Audie was keen to it and mowed them down.

For nearly an hour, Murphy killed or wounded 50 enemy soldiers and quelled the oncoming German onslaught.

An explosion nearly ejected him from the tank and sent razor-sharp shrapnel flying into his legs, but Audie kept fighting. The only thing that stopped Audie’s Rambo-like bravery was that he ran out of ammunition and was forced to withdraw.

His fearless grit held off the enemy’s advance and allowed him to lead his men in a mighty counterattack that ultimately drove the Germany from Holtzwihr. For his heroic actions, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action.

In May 1945, victory was declared in Europe, and Audie still couldn’t legally have a drink because he was only 20-years-old.

“I feel no qualms; no pride; no remorse,” Murphy said. “There is only a weary indifference that will follow me throughout the war.”

Here are the medals, awards and badges that Murphy earned throughout his illustrious military career:

  • Medal of Honor
  • Distinguished Service Cross
  • Silver Star (x2)
  • Legion of Merit
  • Bronze Star
  • Purple Heart (x3)
  • Outstanding Civilian Service Medal
  • Good Conduct Medal
  • Distinguished Unit Emblem
  • American Campaign Medal
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Army of Occupation Medal
  • Armed Forces Reserve Medal
  • Combat Infantry Badge
  • Marksmanship Badge
  • Expert Marksmanship Badge
  • French Fourragere
  • French Legion of Honor, Grade of Chevalier
  • French Croix de Guerre With Palm and Silver Star
  • Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 With Palm
  • Medal of Liberated France
  • Texas Legislative Medal of Honor

The deadliest conflict in human history was over, but the horrors of war still ravaged on in Murphy’s mind. He had been plagued with insomnia, violent mood swings, depression and he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow every night. He suffered tremendous guilt about his friends who he wasn’t able to save.

In 1947 he told doctors that he was constantly suffering from headaches, vomiting and nightmares about war. To combat the clashes in his brain, Murphy took sleeping pills to ease his mind enough to get a few hours of rest a night.

By the mid-1960s, Audie realized he had a dependency on the sedative Placidyl, so he locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to go cold turkey and successfully break the addiction.

Murphy was one of the first people in history to speak openly about post-traumatic stress disorder or “battle fatigue” and “shellshock” as it was known at that time. The national war hero publicly admitted that he had difficulties dealing with PTSD.

He tried to help veterans who were damaged after returning from the Korean War and Vietnam War. He urged the U.S. government to provide more research and mental health care towards those who had to live with these demons in their heads years after they were out of combat.

Murphy spun his hero status into an acting career. From 1948 to 1969, Murphy made more than 40 feature films and one television series.

On May 28, 1971, Audie Murphy and five others died when a private plane crashed into Brush Mountain in Virginia during a business trip.

On June 7, 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery with then Ambassador to the U.N. George H.W. Bush, Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National Cemetery are typically decorated in gold leaf. However, prior to his death Murphy requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of every other soldier.

In 1973, the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio, Texas was dedicated in the war hero’s honor.

Let’s take some time away from our barbecues and suntanning at beach this long weekend to remember and pay tribute to the incredibly brave souls who have sacrificed so much to make this country so great.

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