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Born in Texas on June 20, 1925, Audie Murphy eventually became the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II. Though he was only 21 years old at the end of the war, he had killed 240 German soldiers, had been wounded three times, and had earned 33 awards and medals. After the war, he appeared in more than 40 films. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder throughout his life.
Born in Kingston, Hunt County, Texas, on June 20, 1925, Audie Murphy was raised in a sharecropper's dilapidated house. Murphy's father, Emit, fell short on his parental responsibilities, continuing to father children, 12 in all, despite that fact that he had no plan for how to feed them. Picking up the slack, Murphy helped feed his mother and siblings by hunting rabbits and other small animals around their property.
In 1940, Murphy's father deserted the family for good, and his mother passed away a year later. Moved to do something to honor his mother's life, Murphy enlisted in the military 10 days after his 18th birthday. In February 1943, he left for North Africa, where he received extensive training.
A few months later, Murphy's division moved to invade Sicily. His actions on the ground impressed his superior officers and they quickly promoted him to corporal. While fighting in the wet mountains of Italy, Murphy contracted malaria. Despite such setbacks, he continually distinguished himself in battle.
In August 1944, Murphy's division moved to southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. It was there that his best friend, Lattie Tipton, was lured into the open and killed by a German soldier pretending to surrender. Enraged by this act, Murphy charged and killed the Germans that had just killed his friend. He then commandeered the German's machine gun and grenades and attacked several more nearby positions, killing all of the German soldiers there. Murphy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.
Over the course of World War II, Murphy witnessed the deaths of hundreds of fellow and enemy soldiers. Endowed with great courage in the face of these horrors, he was awarded 33 U.S. military medals, including three Purple Hearts and one Medal of Honor.
In June 1945, Murphy returned home from Europe a hero and was greeted with parades and elaborate banquets. LIFE magazine honored the brave, baby-faced soldier by putting him on the cover of its July 16, 1945 issue. That photograph inspired actor James Cagney to call Murphy and invite him to Hollywood to begin an acting career. Despite his celebrity, however, Murphy struggled for years to gain recognition.
In 1949, Murphy published his autobiography, To Hell and Back. The book quickly became a national bestseller, and in 1955, after much inner debate, he decided to portray himself in the film version of his book. The movie was a hit and held Universal Studio's record as its highest-grossing motion picture until 1975. Murphy would go on to make 44 feature films in all.
In addition to acting, he became a successful country music songwriter, and many of his songs were recorded by well-known artists, including Dean Martin, Jerry Wallace and Harry Nilsson.
During his rise to fame, Murphy met and married actress Wanda Hendrix. They divorced after several turbulent years. He married again in 1951, this time to Pamela Archer, with whom he had two children. Plagued by insomnia and nightmares,
a condition that would eventually become known as post-traumatic stress disorder, Murphy suffered from a powerful addiction to sleeping pills.
In his later years, Audie Murphy squandered his fortune on gambling and bad investments, and was in financial ruin when he died in a plane crash on May 28, 1971. Murphy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on June 7, 1971, and was given full military honors.
He wanted to join the Marines, but he was too short. The paratroopers wouldn't have him either. Reluctantly, he settled on the infantry, enlisting to become nothing less than one of the most-decorated heroes of World War II. He was Audie Murphy, the baby-faced Texas farmboy who became an American Legend. Murphy grew up on a sharecropper's farm in Hunt County, Texas. Left at a very young age to help raise 10 brothers and sisters when his father deserted their mother, Audie was only 16 when his mother died. He watched as his brothers and sisters were doled out to an orphanage or to relatives.
Seeking an escape from that life in 1942, he looked to the Marines. War had just been declared and, like so many other young men, Murphy lied about his age in his attempt to enlist. But it was not his age that kept him out of the Marines; it was his size. Not tall enough to meet the minimum requirements, he tried to enlist in the paratroopers, but again was denied entrance. Despondent, he chose the infantry.First Lt. Audie Murphy
Following basic training Murphy was assigned to the 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa preparing to invade Sicily. It was there in 1943 that he first saw combat, proving himself to be a proficient marksman and highly skilled soldier, consistently his performance demonstrated how well he understood the techniques of small-unit action. He landed at Salerno to fight in the Voltuno river campaign and then at Anzio to be part of the Allied force that fought its way to Rome. Throughout these campaigns, Murphy's skills earned him advancements in rank, because many of his superior officers were being transferred, wounded or killed. After the capture of Rome, Murphy earned his first decoration for gallantry.
Shortly thereafter his unit was withdrawn from Italy to train for Operation Anvil-Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. During seven weeks of fighting in that successful campaign, Murphy's division suffered 4,500 casualties, and he became one of the most decorated men in his company. But his biggest test was yet to come.
On Jan. 26, 1945, near the village of Holtzwihr in eastern France, Lt. Murphy's forward positions came under fierce attack by the Germans. Against the onslaught of six Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen, Murphy ordered his men to fall back to better their defenses. Alone, he mounted an abandoned burning tank destroyer and, with a single machine gun, contested the enemy's advance. Wounded in the leg during the heavy fire, Murphy remained there for nearly an hour, repelling the attack of German soldiers on three sides and single-handedly killing 50 of them. His courageous performance stalled the German advance and allowed him to lead his men in the counterattack which ultimately drove the enemy from Holtzwihr. For this Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for gallantry in action.
By the war's end, Murphy had become the nation's most-decorated soldier, earning an unparalleled 28 medals, including three from France and one from Belgium. Murphy had been wounded three times during the war, yet, in May 1945, when victory was declared in Europe, he had still not reached his 21st birthday.
Audie Murphy returned to a hero's welcome in the United States. His photograph appeared on the cover of Life magazine and he was persuaded by actor James Cagney to embark on an acting career. Still very shy and unassuming, Murphy arrived in Hollywood with only his good looks and — by his own account — "no talent." Nevertheless, he went on to make more than 40 films. His first part was just a small one in Beyond Glory in 1948. The following year he published his wartime memoirs, To Hell and Back, which received good reviews. Later he portrayed himself in the 1955 movie version of the book. Many film critics, however, believe his best performance was in Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's Civil War epic.
After nearly 20 years he retired from acting and started a career in private business. But the venture was unsuccessful, eventually forcing him into bankruptcy in 1968. Murphy, who once said that he could only sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow, was haunted by nightmares of his wartime experiences throughout his adult life. In 1971, at the age of 46, he died in the crash of a private plane near Roanoke, Va.
Audie Murphy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just across Memorial Drive from the Memorial Amphitheater. A special flagstone walkway has been constructed to accommodate the large number of people who stop to pay their respects to this hero. At the end of a row of graves, his tomb is marked by a simple, white, government-issue tombstone, which lists only a few of his many military decorations. The stone is, as he was, too small.
You can`t predict what will touch a nerve.
A few weeks ago I devoted a column to Audie Murphy, the most-decorated soldier ofWorld War II. Murphy, who died in the crash of a small plane in 1971, just may have been the greatest combat hero in American history; he killed 240 enemy soldiers and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with 36 other medals. In the late `40s Murphy was the object of the kind of adulation and adoration reserved for rock singers and movie stars today.
But the country was entering an era in which combat soldiers would not be regarded as heroes. Murphy moved to California, he became an actor in cowboy movies, he got hooked onprescription drugs and became a compulsive gambler. I wrote the column because his story, to me, is one of the most complex and fascinating of our times. Frankly, I didn`t think the column would interest too many people.
I was wrong. Those of you who remember Murphy were touched; those of you who had never heard of him were intrigued. Today, reactions from two readers with very different perspectives:
- ``Audie Murphy was our neighbor in the late `40s,`` said Jane Carter, 72. Mrs. Carter and her husband, Gordon, now 87, were living in California at the time. Audie Murphy, according to Mrs. Carter, had an apartment in the same small complex.
``He was still helping out his brothers and sisters back in Texas,`` Mrs. Carter said. Murphy, the supreme war hero of his time, had emerged from a life of poverty and desperation in rural Texas; his mother had been ill most of his life, his father had deserted the family and Audie had been in charge of his brothers and sisters.
``Audie had a very sweet nature, and he was determined to succeed in Hollywood so he could keep sending money home,`` Mrs. Carter said. ``One weekend I found a recipe in the Ladies` Home Journal-it was about how to
`extend` ham to get more servings out of the meat. So I took the meat and I pounded, chopped, seasoned and molded it-I wound up with several meat-loaf-looking things, and took them over to Audie and a friend of his.
``The next morning their was a soft tap at our door. It was Audie, with the meat. He said, `Jane, we love your cooking-but I can`t eat this. Do you realize that you`ve just made Spam?` Spam was the canned meat that the soldiers ate overseas, and a lot of them couldn`t stand the taste of it once they got home. Audie thought that what I`d made was basically homemade Spam.
``He would often baby-sit with our son, Garrett. If we were going out, we would ask Audie to come over. Even though Garrett was only 4 years old, they got along wonderfully. I don`t know if it was because Garrett was a 4-year-old who liked to play war hero, or because Audie was a war hero who liked to act like a 4-year-old.
``But when we moved to Illinois later, Garrett`s class in school was assigned to write essays about `My Favorite Baby-sitter.` We got a call from the school. They were worried-they said Garrett`s essay was very good, but they were concerned that he was indulging in some vivid, unexplainable fantasy. The school people said, `Your son says that his favorite baby-sitter was Audie Murphy. He goes into some detail.` We finally persuaded them that it was true.``
- Thomas B. Morgan, now 62, is a journalist who in 1967 was assigned by a national magazine to do a profile of Audie Murphy.
``I think the assignment was based on the fact that there had been stories that he was going to make some terrible movie in North Africa or something,`` Morgan said. ``It was an ironic thing-`Hey, here`s Audie Murphy, and he`s going off to act in some third-rate Western so bad that they`re shooting it in North Africa to save money.` The story was supposed to be kind of a `What ever happened to Audie Murphy?` piece.``
Morgan flew to California and spent much of a week with Murphy. Yes, Murphy was in bad shape; yes, Murphy`s life had fallen apart. Thomas Morgan talked with Murphy for all those hours, and listened to him, and watched him. At the end of the week Murphy said, ``Well, thanks for being so nice.``
Morgan went back to New York-and could not write the story. He simply would not let himself do it.
``I could not forget that this guy had done a wonderful thing,`` Morgan said. ``He was a great soldier who, in a very real sense, gave his life for our country in one of the few just wars ever fought on this planet. What would have been gained by me writing an article saying that now he was wasted?
``When people think of Audie Murphy, they should consider that none of the sad things that happened to him after he won the Congressional Medal of Honor should be ignored-but neither should those things prevent Americans from appreciating his personal triumphs over the most formidable obstacles. In a way, Audie Murphy was a casualty of war-but he was a great hero, and when we remember him, we should remember that first.``
Most American workers still retire at the age of 65, and this is the year that many Americans who were born in 1924 will be taking their retirement. One of them-had he lived-would have been Audie Murphy.
Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in our nation`s history. There have really only been two wars that produced individual heroes on the level of Audie Murphy. The hero of World War I was Sgt. Alvin York. The hero of World War II was Audie Murphy. The most-decorated soldiers of Korea and Vietnam were not widely honored by their countrymen and did not become national celebrities.
I have long been fascinated by the life of Audie Murphy. Recently I have read two books-the 1949 autobiography that was largely ghost-written for Murphy, ``To Hell and Back,`` and galley proofs of a remarkable new biography that will be published this summer, ``No Name On the Bullet,`` by Don Graham. The story of Audie Murphy`s life is at the same time awesome and terrifying and almost unbearably sad.
Born in poverty in rural Texas, Murphy received only a fifth-grade education. His father abandoned Audie`s ailing mother and Audie`s brothers and sisters. ``I can`t remember ever being young in my life,`` Audie would recall later. Of his father, he would say: ``I suppose I hated him because I hate anyone who quits.`` Audie Murphy was tiny; when he went to enlist in the Army, he was 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall and weighed 112 pounds. His face was that of a child.
He went overseas at the age of 18. By the end of the war it was said that he had killed 241 enemy soldiers. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and 36 other medals; no soldier in American history had matched that record. He returned home, 20 years old, the symbol of what the country wanted its veterans to be. He appeared to be totally unmarked and unaffected by the war. Inside he was churning and tormented. But he still had that baby face. It was perfect for thecover of Life magazine, and that`s where it ended up. He was described as ``a swell kid, absolutely modest and sincere and genuine and unaltered by terrible experiences.`` He knew that wasn`t true. Later he would say of coming home: ``Things don`t thrill you anymore. It`s a struggle every day to find something interesting to do.``
Today, it is hard to imagine the level of adulation heaped upon Audie Murphy. The mere sight of him brought tears to people`s eyes. He married, and his wife said ``Audie had the most beautiful smile, but unfortunately he never smiled very much.`` He slept with a pistol under his pillow and tormented his bride.
He sought a career in Hollywood. His fame was all he had to sell; his education amounted to nothing, and he could not go out in public or register at a hotel without people gaping, so he figured he might as well make a living from his name. He began appearing in cowboy films. One day, while on a film-promotion trip that took him to Dallas, his dad showed up in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel. The message was relayed to Audie in his room. ``I don`t have a father,`` Audie said, and his dad was not allowed up.
He was divorced and married again. The cowboy movies did all right, but his timing was terrible; television had become America`s major medium of entertainment, and cowboy films were considered passe. Well into the `60s, though, he made them; you can still see some of them on post-midnight TV:
``Hell Bent for Leather,`` ``Bullet for a Badman,`` ``Gunpoint.``
America`s most decorated soldier wrote some songs; he got hooked on prescription drugs and gambled relentlessly and accepted acting jobs in cheap productions filmed overseas for foreign consumption. He found himself begging unsavory bookmakers to pay him his winnings. He died in the crash of a small plane on Memorial Day weekend, 1971. His death rated 20 seconds on each of the network evening newscasts.
He was the last U.S. combat hero, at least the last to be idolized by his countrymen. Some of us grew up with his very name causing us to become wide-eyed. Had he lived a normal life, he would beretiring this year. As it is, according to biographer Don Graham, today few young Americans have heard of Audie Murphy. Pressed, they think that perhaps he is Eddie Murphy`s brother.
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