He was a seventeen-year-old kid from East Texas. His father was in and out (mostly out) of his life. He had dropped out of elementary school to help support his family. His mother had died the year before, so joining the Army in 1942 seemed like a good idea--even though his older sister had to forge his birth records to get him enlisted.

Audie Murphy shipped out for North Africa in early 1943 and prepared for the invasion of Sicily that summer. After that campaign, he landed in Italy and participated in the push toward Rome. In 1944 he was part of the Allied invasion of southern France, two months after the more famous invasion of Normandy in northern France. He received his Medal of Honor for action in January of 1945. This is from the official citation:

2d Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by 6 tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to prepared positions in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, 1 of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from 3 sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.

During the war, Audie Murphy suffered twice from malaria. He was wounded multiple times. He saw friends and comrades killed beside him. And he personally killed or wounded dozens, perhaps hundreds, of enemy soldiers. He came home with a chest full of medals and the designation as the most decorated American soldier of the war.

Audie Murphy, 1948 (U.S. Army)

Audie Murphy, 1948 (U.S. Army)

But all was not well with Audie Murphy. He suffered from nervousness and nightmares. He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. Fame does not pay the bills by itself, and he wasn't sure what to do with himself.

James Cagney thought Murphy could be a good actor and invited him to Hollywood. Murphy took acting and voice lessons. A professional writer helped him create his war memoirs, To Hell and Back, published in 1949. He soon became an actor with leading roles.

Murphy starred as himself in the 1955 movie version of his story, also called To Hell and Back. Its depiction of war is much cleaner than more recent films. The uniforms are clean, the soldiers' mouths are clean, and blood and guts are nowhere to be seen. This makes the movie easier to watch than Saving Private Ryan, but I wonder if this sanitizing contributed to the common misunderstanding of war as something glorious rather than something terrible.

Murphy himself well understood the horrors of war. In a 1955 interview, he said, “War is like a giant pack rat. It takes something from you and leaves something behind in its stead. It burned me out in some ways so that now I feel like an old man but still sometimes act like a dumb kid. It made me grow up too fast. You live so much on nervous excitement that when it is over, you fall apart. That’s what war took from me, the excitement of living.” Another time he also noted: “After the war, they took the dogs and rehabilitated them for civilian life. But they turned soldiers into civilians and let ‘em sink or swim.”

Murphy's first marriage to fellow actor Wanda Hendrix lasted barely two years. He and second wife Pamela Archer had two sons together. They stay married, even though he had other women in his life.

Successful as an actor and also as a songwriter, Murphy did well financially. But he did not manage money well. He bought and bred racehorses and lost large sums through gambling. His life came to a sudden tragic end in 1971 at age 46. He and four other passengers along with the pilot of a private plane died in a crash in Virginia. Murphy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo by  Tim1965  ( CC-BY-SA-3.0 )

David Smith tells Murphy's story well in his book The Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy. War is costly, perhaps especially for those who survive. As Sam Watkins said after the Civil War, "Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo. It is the living, marching, fighting, shooting soldier that has the hardships of war to carry."

British veterans have this year given back their medals to protest what they see as unjust militarism. We rightly honor those who sacrifice themselves in defense of others. But we need to remember the whole story and count the full cost. Political leaders who have full-time bodyguards and sit in secure buildings need to think long and hard before sending young men and women off to kill and be killed.

Audie Murphy (1948)

Oh, gather 'round me, comrades; and listen while I speak
Of a war, a war, a war where hell is six feet deep.
Along the shore, the cannons roar. Oh how can a soldier sleep?
The going's slow on Anzio. And hell is six feet deep.

Praise be to God for this captured sod that rich with blood does seep.
With yours and mine, like butchered swine's; and hell is six feet deep.
That death awaits there's no debate; no triumph will we reap.
The crosses grow on Anzio, where hell is six feet deep. 

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