Sometimes the past seems magnified. History books are filled with giants of inestimable proportions, men who could wrestle oxen or win epic battles with a few hundred soldiers. When you hear the tales of Texan Audie Murphy, it’s easy to raise eyebrows and attribute his feats to the generosity of time. Murphy’s tales aren’t tall, however, but true, making him one of the most heralded heroes of American history.
Born to poor sharecroppers in Hunt County, Texas, in 1925, Murphy’s story begins as an all-American tragedy. With his parents gone before his sixteenth birthday—his father by choice, his mother by death—Murphy continued to support his dozen siblings by picking cotton and seeking odd jobs, as well as by using his keen aim to take down small game for the table.
After Pearl Harbor, Murphy forged documents that falsely claimed he was above the legal age to enlist, and after being turned down by both the Marine Corps and the Navy because of his small size, he finally enlisted with the Army. He entered the Army as a private, but his tenacity and bravery impressed his superiors, and he moved quickly through the ranks, from staff sergeant to second lieutenant.
Murphy saw action across Europe, first in 1943 at the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Anzio, battles in which he proved himself as a marksman. Then in 1944, he participated in the liberation of Rome and the invasion of Southern France. At Montélimar he led an assault at L’Omet quarry and won.
The tales of Murphy’s combat experiences are the stuff of legend. In August of 1944, Murphy found himself in the thick of Operation Dragoon in the south of France, his best friend and mentor Lattie Tipton at his side. When the German troops raised a white flag of surrender, Tipton raised his head and took a fatal bullet. Blind with rage, Murphy stormed the enemy lines alone, killing the soldiers and commandeering a German machine gun with which he took down even more enemy troops. For the act he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
A few months later, in January of 1945, Murphy again spearheaded a clash of mythical proportions. At Holtzwihr in France Murphy again commandeered enemy weaponry—this time a machine gun mounted to a burning tank destroyer—and single-handedly held off German troops on three sides for an hour. Once he finally dismounted, he then led the counterattack, wounded and out of ammunition. This feat earned Murphy the Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery.
By the time Murphy returned home in the summer of 1945, he was just twenty years old and a veritable hero. He was awarded some thirty-three medals and earned every award for valor given to US soldiers, including three Purple Hearts, as well as five from France and Belgium. According to some reports, Murphy killed upwards of 240 enemy soldiers during his mere two years of service. And although he sustained three physical injuries, he returned to the States to tell the tale. His celebrity was instantaneous; parades and lavish dinners were held in his honor, and his youthful visage graced the July 16 cover of LIFE magazine.
It was that magazine cover that would lead Murphy to his next career as an actor. James Cagney, movie star, saw the cover and invited Murphy to Hollywood to pursue acting. But even his popularity as a war hero didn’t grant Murphy instant access to the elite circle; it took years for him to break into the movie biz. His first starring role came with 1949’s Bad Boy, and a contract with Universal followed soon after.
1949 was also the year Murphy published his autobiography, To Hell and Back. The bestseller was turned into a movie and released in 1955, starring Murphy as himself. To Hell and Back became one of Universal’s most successful films, both commercially and critically, earning Murphy some $1 million. During Murphy’s twenty-five-year tenure as an actor he appeared in forty-four movies, twenty-three of which were Westerns.
Although he was by all appearances traditionally successful, Murphy’s daily life was far from easy. The veteran suffered extensively from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that, in the middle of the twentieth century, was hardly recognized. Known then as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock,” soldiers returning from battle were discouraged from even speaking of their frightening maladies.
Murphy became one of the first champions of veterans’ mental health. Plagued by insomnia, nightmares, and depression, he struggled to treat his PTSD and turned to medicine, a sleeping pill called Placidyl, in the ’60’s. Ever the warrior, Murphy realized he was addicted to the medication and initiated his own withdrawal. As soldiers returned from Korea and Vietnam, Murphy spoke out against the government’s rug-shoving of the mental repercussions of battle and called for more research on the mental and emotional impact of combat and how to appropriately treat it.
As is the case with so many heroes, it was not battle or bullet that brought Murphy to his death, but routine. In 1971, at just forty-five, Murphy’s plane crashed on his way to explore a business opportunity in Florida. The decorated veteran was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and it is there, and in the blood of our soldiers, that his legend lives on.
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