Lieutenant Audie Murphy: The Most Decorated Soldier Ever… Who Later Became a Movie Star

With that boyish face, slick hair, slight frame and pouty lips Audie Murphy could have easily been one of those heartthrobs from the James Dean era. A rebel without a cause, a film star or a pop recording artist. He was, in fact, all of the above and then some. Audie Murphy was the real deal, one who could talk the talk and walk the walk. Aged barely 21, 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy had fought his way from North Africa to France in WWII, becoming the most decorated soldier in US History – and a badass Axis-killing machine. In today’s Biographics video we will look at the life of Audie Murphy and how he went To Hell and Back.     

1$ a day

Audie Leon Murphy was born on the 20th of June 1925 in Kingston, Hunt County, Texas in a family of poor sharecroppers of Irish descent. He did not have an easy life to start with. Audie had to share a home with 11 siblings with no abundance of food on the table. Audie’s father, Emmett was not a model dad, by any means, neglecting to provide for his wife Josie Bell and their 12 children.

Young Audie felt a strong responsibility to care for his family and quit school at an early age, managing to complete only 5th grade. He went to work in the Texas cotton fields, earning a reputation as an indefatigable cotton picker, which was well rewarded with the princely pay of 1$ a day, 18$ in today’s money. We don’t know who his employer was, but I’ll take a guess and call him Stingy Bastard, if you don’t mind.

There was little food you could buy with that kind of money, so Audie had to resort to additional means of sustenance. At the age in which kids in the US nowadays hunt for cute critters with their Pokemon Go app, Audie Murphy also went hunting for cute critters – with his rifle. Squirrels, rabbits and other small game fell under his shots and then onto Mum Josie’s kitchen worktop. The experience enabled Murphy to develop great marksmanship skills, which would later prove useful against another type of prey.

Growing into his teenage years, Audie looked for other odd jobs, working as shop clerk and gas station attendant. I expect the pay was higher than 1$ a day, but things went from bad to worse when in 1940 Emmett Murphy upped sticks and deserted his family. Audie’s mother Josie Bell died of pneumonia the following year. Suddenly Audie felt the weight of his family’s welfare entirely on his narrow and frail shoulders.

Joining the Army

When the US were dragged into WWII by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, 7th of December 1941, Audie Murphy thought “that’s it, that’s what I am gonna do, I will join the military!”. He saw this not only as a means to provide for his siblings, but also as a way to honour his mother’s memory.

There was a slight problem, though.

Audie tried to enlist first with the Marines, then with the paratroopers, but those elite corps turned him down due to his diminutive size and weak frame. Audie in fact stood at only 5 foot 5 and weighed a mere 110 pounds (that’s166 cm and 45 kilos) – but he wasn’t going to accept such an early setback.

It took him seven months, but he was able to gain 12 pounds in weight. Armed with this added bulk and his sister false testimony that he was 18 – he was actually 17 – he finally was inducted into the military. Not in the Marines, his armed force of choice, but in the regular infantry.

After basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas, and advanced training at Fort Meade, Maryland, Audie was assigned to the famous 15th Infantry Regiment and shipped off to North Africa.

The 15th landed in French Morocco in November 1942 as part of Operation Torch. This consisted in attacking from the West the Axis forces in North Africa, while the British and Commonwealth forces were squeezing the Italo-Germans from the East. This was the first campaign in which American forces would engage the Axis on land. After initial setbacks at the Kasserine pass, the Allied divisions, slowly but surely, encircled the Italo-German armies in Tunisia. They eventually surrendered in May 13, 1943

To Hell …

During the Tunisian Campaign Audie Murphy did not saw combat. But this was about to change: his first experience of actual fighting occurred after the Allied invasion of Sicily, in July 1943. In a skirmish against Italian soldiers, Murphy put to good use his natural hunting talent and shot dead two officers. This action earned him the first of many battlefield promotions becoming a Corporal.

During the Italian campaign Audie consistently impressed his superiors thanks to his courage, resilience and innate leadership skills. On one occasion he was hit by a German sniper on the hip. He did not lose his cool and returned fire, hitting the sniper between the eyes. But the only foes that managed to hold him back in Italy were mosquitoes, as he spent much time in a field hospital due to several bouts of malaria.

In August 1944 Audie and the 15th Regiment were in Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. One day, Audie and his unit, which included his best friend Lattie Tipton were lured out of their fox hole by a group of surrendering Germans. It was a trap. One of the Germans shot at Lattie, killing him. Audie simply went berserk. He charged at the German squad and wiped them out single-handedly. He then grabbed their heavy machine gun and grenades and put them to good use, attacking several more German positions, killing all enemy soldiers in the area.

Murphy received his first important decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, in recognition of these actions.

This was a consistent trait of Murphy’s. He would charge into battle in the most desperate circumstances, always emerging alive – albeit not unscathed – after inflicting tremendous damage to the enemy, thanks to his nerves of steel and excellent marksmanship. As a reward, Murphy not only collected an impressive number of medals, but he also escalated the ranks. By January 1945, aged barely 20, Audie had moved from Private to Corporal to Sergeant to 2nd Lieutenant.

It was on the 26th of that month that 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy performed the action that would make him a legend for the years to come.

In the early afternoon of that day, Murphy was leading a platoon of some 40 U.S. troops in a clearing near the French town of Holtzwihr, close to the German border. The unit was charged with holding a roadway until reinforcements arrived. But the relief force did not materialise and just after 2 p.m., the worst happened: 250 German troops supported by six tanks and an artillery barrage emerged from the woods and attacked.

Murphy’s first instinct was to get his men to safety and so he instructed them to withdraw to dug-in defensive positions along a nearby tree line. As they ran for cover, he stayed behind and used his field telephone to call in an artillery strike. He managed to do so just in time, before the Panzers opened fire against his position, destroying a machine gun nest and setting an American tank destroyer on fire.

But if there is something US soldiers can rely upon is their artillery. In few seconds, a barrage of shells exploded between Murphy and the Germans. The open field, which had been covered in immaculate snow a few minutes before was now a hellish landscape of craters.

Murphy took advantage of the cover offered by the barrage and retreated atop the burning tank destroyer. Over the radio, the artillery commander asked him how close the Germans were to his position. He replied

“Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards!”

Squad after squad of Germans seemed intent on having a chat on the phone with the artillery guy … but Murphy had found out that the .50-caliber machine gun on top of the tank destroyer was still operational. He quickly opened fire, burst after burst, mowing down dozens of enemy soldiers, all the while directing artillery fire over the radio.

German gunners fought back with small arms and tank fire, with the shrapnel of one blast wounding Murphy in the leg. As usual, he kept on fighting. It was only when the ammo on the machine gun ran out that Murphy finally jumped from the flaming tank destroyer and went back to his men. He later wrote that his only thought while retreating was: “How come I’m not dead?”

Murphy had now reached safety behind the defensive positions set up by his men. He had personally killed or wounded about 50 enemies and taken out dozens more indirectly via the artillery strike. But he wasn’t done yet. Murphy refused to be evacuated from the battlefield and instead rallied his company into counterattacking the Germans, finally driving them back into the woods.

2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions at Holtzwihr.

The official citation which came with the Medal reads

“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.”

Audie had now become something of a celebrity among the Allied troops and his commanders would rather have him as a liaison officer rather than having risk his life on the front line. The last weeks of the war were relatively peaceful for him – not that he needed to see more actions. By VE day Audie Murphy

  • Had endured three wounds and a nasty case of malaria,
  • Had been promoted three times, from private to officer
  • Had personally killed, wounded or captured about 240 enemy soldiers
  • And had received a total of 33 decorations from the US, French and Belgian militaries, making him the most decorated soldier of WWII.

But he had also lost his best friend Lattie, as well as countless other army buddies. As he reflected immediately after the war

“There is VE-Day without, but no peace within.”

… and Back

Discharged from the Army on September 21, 1945, with the rank of 1st Lieutenant Audie had barely made it back home, when Hollywood actor and producer James Cagney noticed his photo on the cover of a magazine.

Cagney was a real Hollywood legend, who had become an A-lister in the 1930s thanks to his roles in gangster movies. Cagney had an eye for recognising talent and immediately noticed in Audie’s boyish face a certain star quality.

This was a turning point in Audie Murphy’s life. Was Cagney right? Well, not really, at least at the beginning.

Hi company Cagney Productions paid for acting, dancing and elocution lessons but in the following years Murphy struggled to make his ‘big break’, managing to score only two minor roles, in Beyond Glory and Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven, both in 1948.

If there is something we should have learned about Murphy by now is that he was not easily discouraged. The following year, 1949, was a momentous one for him. After much auditioning he finally got his first lead role as a juvenile delinquent in Bad Boy.

Fun fact – the film’s director, Kurt Neumann, was more famous for directing the Tarzan series with Johnny Weissmuller and was a German from Nuremberg. That must have been awkward.

In addition to filming with Neumann, Audie found time to publish his war memoire ‘To Hell and Back’. Written in a direct style, in the present tense, Murphy’s book does not hold back from the most atrocious realities of modern war. It would eventually become a best seller.

Last but not least, 1949 was also the year in which Audie got married. Just like Cagney had noticed Murphy on a magazine cover, Audie had noticed his future wife, actress Wanda Hendrix, on the front page of Coronet. Her beauty must have had the same effect of being shelled by a Panzer. Audie insisted to arrange a meeting with her, and after a short engagement in 1948, the two got married on the 8th of February 1949 and went on to act together in a Western film called Sierra in 1950.

In 1951 Audie had the opportunity to be directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, John Houston, in MGM’s The Red Badge of Courage. This is now considered a classic but at the time it bombed at the box office.

As a result, Murphy, now under binding contract with Universal-International Pictures, was assigned to star in a string of low-to-medium budget Westerns, which was the genre which suited best Audie’s acting talent – especially his easy going image and Texas drawl, which I am not going to imitate now.

He acted in a total of forty-four films, being the main star in thirty-nine of them. Despite most of these films have been forgotten by now, it gave Murphy the opportunity to work with Hollywood royalty such as actor Jimmy Stewart or director Don Siegel, of ‘Dirty Harry’ fame.

However, the role for which he is best remembered is … as himself! 1955 in fact saw the release of “To Hell and Back”, adapted from his own war memoire, in which Audie Murphy the actor starred as Audie Murphy, the war hero. ‘To Hell and Back’ was a box office success and remained Universal’s most profitable picture for 20 years, until ‘Jaws; by Spielberg was released.

It consecrated his status as a successful actor and a household name, however it forced him to relive the most traumatic experiences of his service in WWII.

Back from Hell?    

I have to apologise now if I have made you think that Audie’s life was all fine and dandy after returning from Germany. It wasn’t. Lieutenant Murphy had brought back with him the demons of what had been called “shell shock”, later “combat fatigue” and nowadays post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And Murphy displayed all the typical symptoms of this condition, including nightmares, extreme anxiety, irritability and insomnia. This is how Audie described the agony and misery he felt:  

“”It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green.”

He woke up screaming at night and slept with a loaded calibre 45 pistol nearby. He had a violent temper, so much so that in a bar fight he inflicted such injuries on his opponent that he was almost convicted of attempted murder. Don Siegel, who directed him in The Gun Runners in 1958 reported that Audie often carried a gun on set, with many of the cast and crew being afraid of him.

His marriage with Wanda Hendrix suffered greatly from his disorder. Audie was often beset with flashbacks and paranoia in the first months after the wedding and often held Wanda at gunpoint during violent episodes. This must have degenerated in pathologic jealousy, as Murphy demanded from his wife – by then a much more successful actress than he was – that she gave up her job to be a stay-at-home wife. Wanda was frightened by this behaviour and left him after only seven months of marriage, charging him with mental cruelty. The final decree of divorce came on April 14, 1950. Murphy married again the following year with Pamela Archer, also an actress. This union would be a happier one, lasting until Audie’s death.

But his troubles with insomnia and depression continued throughout the 1960s, in parallel with his declining film career. In the end he became addicted to a powerful prescription drug called Placidyl which actually can worsen a pre-existing state of depression.

Audie Murphy, though, was never one to raise a white flag. Realizing he had become addicted to Placidyl, he locked himself in a motel room for a week, while he went full cold turkey and fought back the withdrawal symptoms. He ended up beating the addiction and went on to break the taboo of talking about the mental disorders many soldiers suffered when they returned home. His willingness to do so opened up for the first time Nation-wide discussions about psychological care for Korean and Vietnam war veterans upon their return to the US.

To Hell and Back with Audie Murphy

Meanwhile, the studio system that Murphy grew into as an actor crumbled. Universal’s new owners, MCA turned the studio’s focus toward the now more lucrative television industry. For theatrical productions, it dropped its roster of contract players and hired actors on a per-picture basis only. What this meant for Murphy is that he now had to audition and hustle for each role, just like at the beginning of his career. This was made even more difficult by the fact that the traditional, mid-budget Westerns he had become famous for, they were now a thing of the past. The 1960s were the age of counter-culture and the Frontier was now represented by the new wave of European-made ‘Spaghetti Westerns’.

Audie tried his hand at the new genre, landing the leading role in ‘The Texican’, in 1966, which is more precisely a “Paella Western”, as the majority of the cast was Spanish. Apparently, it is not as terrible as it sounds – but it tanked at the box office. As a soldier, he had garnered 33 medals; as an actor the only official accolade was a 1955 prize as “Movie Distributors’ Favourite Western Actor”.  

Fortunately, Murphy had diversified his activities becoming also a rancher and businessman in the trade of breeding and selling thoroughbred horses. He had also become a songwriter, writing the lyrics to many pop and country hits of the 1960s. His most famous song, Shutters and Boards, was recorded by legendary crooner Dean Martin among others and was even covered in Swedish. It is easy to find in the lyrics an echo of the failed romance with Wanda. Now, I’d love to play it for you but unfortunately my guitar is being re-strung, so I will just read you some lines:

“Shutters and boards cover the windows

Of the house where we used to live

All I have left is a heart full of sorrow

Since she said she’d never forgive

The house that we built was once filled with laughter

But I changed that laughter to tears

Now I must live in a world without sunshine

Oh how I wish you were here”

Walk the Proud Land (1956)

From Hell to Heaven

On May 28th, 1971, Murphy was flying on a private plane, on his way to a business meeting. According to many accounts, by this point he had largely lost his fortune to gambling and bad investments. Perhaps this meeting was to set him back on the good track, but we will never now. The plane ran into thick fog over Craig County, Virginia, near Roanoke, and crashed into the side of a mountain. Audie and all five other passengers and crew were killed.

He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Military Cemetery, on June the 7th. According to cemetery records, the only grave site visited by more people than that of Murphy is that of President John F. Kennedy.

Audie Murphy and M.G. H Miller Ainsworth 1950

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